Hubble Space Telescope shows 5,000 ancient galaxies sparkling like confetti

field of galaxies
An image taken as part of the UVCANDELS program by the Hubble Space Telescope shows a region billions of light-years away from Earth that contains about 5,000 galaxies. (Image credit: NASA/STScI/Harry Teplitz (Caltech/IPAC))

Thousands of distant, primordial galaxies in different shapes and sizes glow in infrared light in a newly released image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The oldest galaxies are about 13 billion years old, dating from just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. By looking at those galaxies in ultraviolet light, scientists can discover what chemicals lie inside those galaxies — information that is key to understanding how galaxies form and evolve. But there's a problem with this method: That primordial ultraviolet light gets absorbed before it can reach us.

But scientists can look at many, many galaxies that are just a little younger, 11 billion years old. And that's what astronomers have done with the Hubble Space Telescope, helping to create this image of a very old, very far crop of galaxies.

Related: Hubble Space Telescope's largest-ever infrared image peers back 10 billion years

The image is part of a recent survey called UVCANDELS. Over about 10 days of observational time, Hubble imaged about 140,000 galaxies. Some of them are visible in the newly released image — numerous types of galaxies, seen from a range of angles.

UVCANDELS provides unique "insight into ongoing star formation in galaxies both near and far," said Xin Wang, an astronomer at Caltech who presented the results June 14 at the American Astronomical Society conference in California.

UVCANDELS is the sequel to another survey, CANDELS, which examined infrared and redder visible light. Hubble retraced, with ultraviolet and purpler visible light, the parts of the sky that CANDELS examined, including the one in the newly released image, known as the Extended Groth Strip. By combining layers from both studies, scientists created this new image.

These surveys allow scientists to look back at an era of the early universe known as reionization. During this epoch, kicked off by the formation of the first galaxies, the first light sources began to pierce the cosmic veil, bringing an end to the universe's "dark age."

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Rahul Rao
Contributing Writer

Rahul Rao is a graduate of New York University's SHERP and a freelance science writer, regularly covering physics, space, and infrastructure. His work has appeared in Gizmodo, Popular Science, Inverse, IEEE Spectrum, and Continuum. He enjoys riding trains for fun, and he has seen every surviving episode of Doctor Who. He holds a masters degree in science writing from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) and earned a bachelors degree from Vanderbilt University, where he studied English and physics.