By far the most famous robotic observatory in history, the Hubble Space Telescope has spent the past 24 years “in the heavens.” Now, in its service life’s final year, it’s making a stop in the Milky Way by grabbing a view of two of the most distant known planets.
The visible light from these planets is beginning to emerge, giving the first up-close look at Planet 10, an alien world that’s more than 10,000 light-years away, and Planet 11, a dark, gas-giant world orbiting behind a star about 75,000 light-years away.
Both planets have slender orbits, about 37 days, rather than the years of more Earth-sized planets found in our solar system. They’re not much bigger, in terms of mass, than Jupiter.
Hubble’s Hubble Ultra Deep Field, a collection of 45,000 galaxies, is a patch of sky where astronomers saw stars glowing brilliantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the powers that be were first trying to solve the riddle of our universe’s birth.
Throughout its existence, Hubble has made spectacular finds: more than 9,000 distant galaxies that lie beyond the farthest objects in the observable universe. It’s also uncovered hidden messages hidden in black holes, discovered evidence of giant black holes wandering through our galaxy and mapped the growth of galaxies beyond our own.
But scientists also need to retrace the path our universe took from the Big Bang to the present day. To do that, the brightest and most powerful cameras in the sky are used for a series of observations known as the Hubble Deep Field, a survey of light from all 60 million nearby galaxies that’s been updated many times.
From 2000 to 2008, NASA organized four Deep Field observations, each totaling six million light-years in size, in which Hubble took 10,000 pictures at different wavelengths, analyzing how light from galaxies interacted with each other. Every single light-year from where Hubble took the photo — about 5 billion miles — is within the visible-light range that Hubble captures, so the dataset spans across the entire spectrum, in order to provide the most complete picture of the universe.
Hubble’s successor to the Hubble telescope — the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch in 2019 — will do the same. But the telescope was designed to look in ultraviolet and near-infrared light.
So, over a period of four years, Hubble revisited the $2.8 billion James Webb Telescope’s field of view to check in, using a different instrument to detect the planet planets orbiting distant stars.
In January 2015, astronomers announced the discovery of Planet 10, which was also designated by only one name; TESS. The other half, 11, is the more elegant designation.
NASA said it is one of the most distant worlds ever seen. Earth is about 4.5 billion miles away from this dark world, which is larger than Jupiter, and warm enough to have liquid water on its surface, which wouldn’t be possible if it had a thick atmosphere, like Earth does.
Given how far from us the planets are, the data will tell us almost nothing about their existence — they probably existed when the universe was still in its infancy. What’s more interesting is that they’re young, like our solar system, which took billions of years to get to where it is today.
When the planets formed, the universe was about 10 to 40 percent as hot as today, with magma flows resembling those found at the bottom of a glacial lake. If they evolved through time, NASA said, they probably cooled enough to create the atmosphere that gives life on Earth its atmosphere.
As for the scientists behind the photographs, it doesn’t matter how far away they go; their job is to just use the equipment at their disposal to understand the universe. As Deep Field astronomer Kallen Lee, an astrophysicist at Cambridge University, said: “One of our inspirations for going to the Hubble Deep Field was to look back to the early universe — to look for unique building blocks of things like galaxies and planets. … That’s what we’re doing, and the data that we’re acquiring will yield fantastic new insights into the early universe.”