JANUARY 16, 1996
Shedding a little light on great questions, Dr. Ed Weiler of NASA's Hubble Telescope Project discusses new findings with Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Some of the great mysteries of the universe may be a little close to being solved, it's size, make-up, and perhaps even the origin of the universe. That's what scientists are saying after seeing pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in December. Today they released the pictures showing the most distant and detailed images ever recorded. For more on what was found and what it means, we have NASA's scientist, Dr. Ed Weiler, who's been a part of the Hubble Telescope project since its birth 18 years ago. Dr. Weiler, tell us exactly what it is that was shot out there by Hubble and what it is that has you scientists so excited.
DR. ED WEILER, NASA: (San Antonio) Well, let me give you a little bit of history first. Dr. Bob Williams, who is the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, had the idea about a year ago that maybe it would be worth a significant fraction of his discretionary time on Hubble to really push the telescope to its ultimate limit, that is to take the longest exposure possible and really push the telescope to find the faintest and deepest parts of the universe, and a team at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, including some European astronomers, prepared this observation over a period of about a year. And what they did is try to find an area of space where we can look out of our own galaxy, where we wouldn't be looking to a lot of other nearby galaxies or a lot of other nearby stars, really have a clear view, really back almost to the beginning of time, and the observation was taken just this past December, and it represented about thirty to eighty hours of exposure time, and this picture represents the deepest photograph of the faintest objects ever seen by humans.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you know that you're looking back to the beginning of time? I mean, that's almost a mind-boggling concept, that you could actually look back to the beginning of time.
DR. WEILER: Well, you have to remember the speed of light is not infinite. For instance, the, the image you're seeing of me now has to go up to a satellite, down to Washington, then back up to a satellite and out to people's TV's. That takes time, so you're actually seeing me as I look--as I look now in the present but a fraction of a second later, and that's true when you look back further into space. It takes light time to get here, so if you look back one billion years, it takes light a billion years to get here. So you're actually looking at objects a billion years younger. If you look back 10 billion light years, it takes 10 billion years for that light to get here, so you're looking at objects that are 10 billion years younger than we are.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what was seen as the experiment progressed that is so, such a major discovery at this point?
DR. WEILER: Well, what we're seeing--and I don't know if you have the image up on the screen now, but--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we do have the image, and we can put it up.
DR. WEILER: Okay, great. I'm looking at the image now, myself. For instance, everything you see on this image is a galaxy with just a couple of exceptions. You see a star right in the center a little bit to the left.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what is a galaxy?
DR. WEILER: A galaxy is a collection of hundreds of billions of stars, and we live in a galaxy called the Milky Way. They're the largest forms of matter. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is probably somewhere between ten and fifteen billion years old. So actually we live in the present, and we're the oldest objects in the universe. Everything you see on this picture is younger than we are. If you look at that star right in the center, just to the upper left of it, you see a nice little spiral galaxy. That looks very similar to the one we live in like the Milky Way. If you look just to the left of that, you see all these little fuzz balls, blue fuzz balls, red fuzz balls. Those are probably galaxies or shreds of galaxies as they're forming, perhaps only a billion years after the Big Bang. So all we're really doing is looking through a wedge of the universe or a tube of the universe. The big galaxies are ones that are fairly nearby, maybe only about 2 billion light years away, and those little tiny things are probably at the very edge of the universe, the very beginning of the universe only maybe perhaps a billion years after the beginning.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And so once we've seen this, and this is all in color, right--
DR. WEILER: Yes, this is true color.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I mean, I can see--right. What do we learn from what we're seeing there. What are those pictures really telling us?
DR. WEILER: Well, this observation was considered so important that unlike most observations, astronomers on Hubble get to keep the data for a year and analyze it and then publish it. This is so important because it really--we're really looking at our origins, our own very origins here.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What does that mean?
DR. WEILER: Well, we're looking back to the beginning of time. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, probably looked like one of these smudges ten, fifteen billion years ago. So we're really looking at our origins, how we began, and we're looking back at a range of galaxy ages, and it's going to take, it's going to take many, many years probably to really get all the data out of this image. But what we've done is we've made this data available to the worldwide astronomical community. In fact, if you have access to Internet, you can pull it off your screen tonight. That's very dissimilar to the way most data is taken. Most data is given to an astronomer and they have about a year to analyze it. But we felt that we wanted the best minds in the world working on this because this really could be the rosetta stone of learning something about how galaxies evolved, how the largest ones of matter evolved over time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And when we know that, what do we know, and what can we do with it?
DR. WEILER: Well, every successful culture spends a tiny fraction of its money trying to gain knowledge, and I think understanding how the universe began and understanding how we got here is a very basic human question that was probably asked by the very first cave woman and cave man that walked out of their cave and looked at the sky.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So this could take us back to Adam and Eve, is that what you're saying?
DR. WEILER: Well, I don't know about that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But where does it lead, I mean, what do these pictures take you to next? I mean, what will you do with them next?
DR. WEILER: Well, what has to be done now, and this shows a synergy between space, space astronomy and ground base astronomy, what we need to do now is get actual distances to some of these objects because all we have here is a picture, which has an incredible amount of detail on that, but we need to know the distances of these objects to really understand which objects are young and which objects are old. To do that we're going to need the largest ground base telescopes on Earth, for instance, the 10-meter telescope, to take further observation of these things to try to understand the distances, so by combining work on the ground and these Hubble pictures we'll really get hopefully a better understanding of how the universe evolved in time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Dr. Weiler, needless to say, as you begin to understand that, we'll be here trying to understand it with you. Thank you very much for joining us.
DR. WEILER: Thank you.