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The Race To Decode The Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image

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  • New York - Mar 09, 2004
    Astrophysicists from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and Stony Brook University charged out of the research gates today to kick off Science Live: The Race to Decode the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image, a six-day event offering the public an unprecedented opportunity to watch competitive science in action.

    Through Sunday, March 14, 2004, visitors to the Museum's Frederick Phineas & Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space will have an opportunity to watch how astrophysicists actually make discoveries as they attempt to decode the mysterious space objects revealed in the greatest astronomical image ever taken -- the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

    This image and the data behind it were released today to the public and scientists worldwide. The New York based teams have mobilized their resources at the Museum to take on scientists worldwide in an informal battle to be the first to publish findings on the image's more than 10,000 dazzling galaxies and other objects captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

    Like the many previous images taken by this telescope, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field will provide new insights about the contents of deep space, possibly revealing objects never before known to science. This new image, moreover, will be the first to unveil some of the earliest galaxies to emerge in the history of the universe, just after the first stars ignited.

    Surrounded by racks of computers and working against a backdrop of the spectacular new image displayed on the Museum's 16-ft x 9-ft AstroBulletin, the Science Live astrophysicists will crunch numbers at a long bank of computer workstations and debate their interpretations of the data nearly around the clock.

    Members of the three teams will provide progress reports to the public several times a day, sharing their evolving insights into possible new findings and giving updates on puzzling aspects of the data. Plasma screens and other displays in the Cullman Hall of the Universe will display the scientists' progress, keystroke by keystroke. A blackboard in the work area will be filled with the scientists' notes, equations, and sketches.

    The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) image was produced by the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been orbiting Earth since 1990 as a joint project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the European Space Agency. Several hundred orbits of telescope time were allocated this winter to produce this new image, the deepest-ever of the universe, equivalent to an 11.5-day-long photographic exposure.

    he area of sky depicted in the HUDF is located in the constellation Fornax. Previous Hubble images have led to important discoveries about black holes, dark energy, the expansion of the universe, quasars, and gamma-ray bursts.

    However, none of the previous images have reached back so early into the beginnings of the universe, detecting light in this case from just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

    With the public release of these impressive data, astrophysicists worldwide will scramble in the coming days to be the first to discover what the image, more dense with data than any previous Hubble image, reveals.

    At the Science Live event at the American Museum of Natural History, members of the three institutions' teams will do their compute, ponder, and dispute in full view of Museum visitors, demystifying the inner workings of astrophysics research.

    The Museum team, led by Michael M. Shara, Curator and Curator-in-Charge of Astrophysics in the Museum's Division of Physical Sciences, will attempt to find objects that were in motion while the image was taken, in hopes of identifying icy bodies that orbit the Sun beyond Neptune in a circular band called the Kuiper Belt.

    The Museum team then hopes to count these objects and determine their various properties, applying the insights gained to theories about the formation of solar systems. Members of the Museum team also will use the HUDF data to study rapidly moving stars up to hundreds of light-years from the Sun.

    "Science Live will offer Museum visitors an extended opportunity to understand how astrophysicists use telescope data to explore the universe from a huge distance," said Dr. Shara. "At the event, the public can see exactly how astrophysicists go about trying to explain a variety of phenomena, from the birth of the universe to the creation of solar systems like our own."

    The Columbia University team will search for some of the most distant objects captured in the HUDF image, such as exploding stars and black holes, as well as some of the nearest objects, such as dwarf stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. These objects will be found by hunting for light sources that varied in brightness over the several months that the telescope was trained on them.

    "There are many astrophysicists in the New York metropolitan area, with a great many unique capabilities," said Arlin Crotts, Associate Professor at Columbia's Department of Astronomy. "It is great that we are getting together to cooperate for this scientific opportunity, and even more special that the public gets to see something of how science is done."

    The Stony Brook team, led by Kenneth M. Lanzetta, Professor in Stony Brook's Department of Physics and Astronomy, will develop and apply computer-based image-processing techniques to measure the brightness of the faintest sources found in the HUDF image, mainly exploding stars and extremely distant galaxies.

    With this data, they will be able to calculate the age of and distance to these sources and learn more about how early galaxies formed and evolved into what they are today. Their analysis also will reveal how much of the light of extremely distant galaxies was missed by previous, less sensitive observations of the early universe.

    "We are delighted to be part of Science Live and the effort to uncover the new science that can be learned in the first week that the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image is released," Lanzetta said.

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    Another Modest Proposal for the Future of the Hubble Telescope
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    A recent article in explored the possibilities for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) by Shuttle, Orbital Space Plane (OSP) or Soyuz. There are problems with all three of those contingencies, not the least of which is that the OSP hasn't even been designed yet.

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