Hubble Deep Field - Scientific Results

Scientific Results

The HDF data provided extremely rich material for cosmologists to analyse and as of late 2008, the associated scientific paper for the image has received over 800 citations. One of the most fundamental findings was the discovery of large numbers of galaxies with high redshift values.

As the universe expands, more distant objects recede from the Earth faster, in what is called the Hubble Flow. The light from very distant galaxies is significantly affected by the cosmological redshift. While quasars with high redshifts were known, very few galaxies with redshifts greater than one were known before the HDF images were produced. The HDF, however, contained many galaxies with redshifts as high as six, corresponding to distances of about 12 billion light-years. Due to redshift the most distant objects in the HDF (Lyman-break galaxies) are not actually visible in the Hubble images; they can only be detected in images of the HDF taken at longer wavelengths by ground-based telescopes.

The HDF galaxies contained a considerably larger proportion of disturbed and irregular galaxies than the local universe; galaxy collisions and mergers were more common in the young universe as it was much smaller than today. It is believed that giant elliptical galaxies form when spirals and irregular galaxies collide.

The wealth of galaxies at different stages of their evolution also allowed astronomers to estimate the variation in the rate of star formation over the lifetime of the universe. While estimates of the redshifts of HDF galaxies are somewhat crude, astronomers believe that star formation was occurring at its maximum rate 8–10 billion years ago, and has decreased by a factor of about 10 since then.

Another important result from the HDF was the very small number of foreground stars present. For years astronomers had been puzzling over the nature of dark matter, mass which seems to be undetectable but which observations implied made up about 90% of the mass of the universe. One theory was that dark matter might consist of Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs)—faint but massive objects such as red dwarfs and planets in the outer regions of galaxies. The HDF showed, however, that there were not significant numbers of red dwarfs in the outer parts of our galaxy.

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