What is the “Deep Field”?
‘The Hubble Deep Field (HDF) is an image of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major, constructed from a series of observations by the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers an area about 2.6 arcminutes on a side, about one 24-millionth of the whole sky, which is equivalent in angular size to a tennis ball at a distance of 100 meters. The image was assembled from 342 separate exposures taken with the Space Telescope’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 over ten consecutive days between December 18 and December 28, 1995.
The field is so small that only a few foreground stars in the Milky Way lie within it; thus, almost all of the 3,000 objects in the image are galaxies, some of which are among the youngest and most distant known. By revealing such large numbers of very young galaxies, the HDF has become a landmark image in the study of the early universe…
‘Three years after the HDF observations were taken, a region in the south celestial hemisphere was imaged in a similar way and named the Hubble Deep Field South. The similarities between the two regions strengthened the belief that the universe is uniform over large scales and that the Earth occupies a typical region in the Universe (the cosmological principle). A wider but shallower survey was also made as part of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey. In 2004 a deeper image, known as the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF), was constructed from a few months of light exposure. The HUDF image was at the time the most sensitive astronomical image ever made at visible wavelengths, and it remained so until the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) was released in 2012.’ (Wikipedia)
‘One of the key aims of the astronomers who designed the Hubble Space Telescope was to use its high optical resolution to study distant galaxies to a level of detail that was not possible from the ground. Positioned above the atmosphere, Hubble avoids atmospheric airglow allowing it to take more sensitive visible and ultraviolet light images than can be obtained with seeing-limited ground-based telescopes (when good adaptive optics correction at visible wavelengths becomes possible, 10 m ground-based telescopes may become competitive). Although the telescope’s mirror suffered from spherical aberration when the telescope was launched in 1990, it could still be used to take images of more distant galaxies than had previously been obtainable. Because light takes billions of years to reach Earth from very distant galaxies, we see them as they were billions of years ago; thus, extending the scope of such research to increasingly distant galaxies allows a better understanding of how they evolve.
After the spherical aberration was corrected during Space Shuttle mission STS-61 in 1993, the improved imaging capabilities of the telescope were used to study increasingly distant and faint galaxies. The Medium Deep Survey (MDS) used the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) to take deep images of random fields while other instruments were being used for scheduled observations. At the same time, other dedicated programs focused on galaxies that were already known through ground-based observation. All of these studies revealed substantial differences between the properties of galaxies today and those that existed several billion years ago.
‘Up to 10% of the HST’s observation time is designated as Director’s Discretionary (DD) Time, and is typically awarded to astronomers who wish to study unexpected transient phenomena, such as supernovae. Once Hubble’s corrective optics were shown to be performing well, Robert Williams, the then-director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, decided to devote a substantial fraction of his DD time during 1995 to the study of distant galaxies. A special Institute Advisory Committee recommended that the WFPC2 be used to image a “typical” patch of sky at a high galactic latitude, using several optical filters. A working group was set up to develop and implement the project.’