Monday, August 16, 2010
The photons that would become the Hubble Deep Field- the HDF--- indivisible packets of energy radiated by innumerable pieces of matter--had begun their journey maybe ten billion years earlier, traveling some sixty sextillion (that's 60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) miles before reaching the rims of Hubble's 94.5-inch-diameter primary mirror, which focused them onto a 12.2-inch secondary mirror, which redirected them into a host of scientific instruments, which, after translating them into electronic signals of zeros and ones, beamed them to a tracking and data relay satellite, which ricocheted them to a ground station in White Sands, New Mexico, which, after translating them into radio signals, zapped them back up into the stratosphere and toward a communications satellite, which bounced them earthward again to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which forwarded them via telephone circuitry to the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore, Maryland, where they took up residence inside computers until an astronomer called them up on a screen, at which point the zeros and ones regathered themselves into swatches of light and dark that, approximately two feet and 1/500,000,000th of a second later, reached the eyes of astronomers, who could hardly believe what they were seeing.
"As the images have come up on our screens," the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute declared, "we have not been able to keep from wondering if we might somehow be seeing our own origins in all of this." He dubbed the emerging image "the double helix of galaxy formation"; another astronomer likened it to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
--From Richard Panek's "Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens"