How Far Can the Hubble Telescope See? The Answer is Shocking!

how far can the hubble telescope see

For over 30 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting the Universe. They have been observing the system and collecting images of faraway galaxies, stars, and planets. But just how far can the Hubble telescope see?

In this guide, we uncover the answer, how the images are processed, where they are kept, what they have accomplished, and so much more!

How Far Can the Hubble Telescope See?

The farthest distance and time the Hubble Space Telescope has measured to date is a galaxy 13.4 billion light years away. It was named GN-z11, and it marks the very edge of the observable universe.

It’s also known as the Hubble Deep Field. The distance in light years calculated has significantly changed how the world observes time and the birth of the Universe.

Because light travels only 186,000 miles per second, 13.4 billion light-years indicate the Hubble telescope has actually seen back in time when observing the galaxy. It gave the Universe a respectable age.

According to Edwin Hubble, the astronomer behind the marvelous telescope, the Universe is effectively expanding in light years, which in layman’s terms means it’s growing older. So, the GN-z11 galaxy would actually be 32 billion light years away from Earth at this moment in time.

Now that we know the relative age of the Universe, we also realize that space cannot be observed past 15 billion light years. It did not seem to exist at that point. Advanced technologies and upgraded telescopes are still being built in hopes to understand the Universe better.

How Does the Hubble Telescope Get Clear Images of the Universe?

Hubble Space Telescope and Earth

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hubble Space telescope gets clear images of the Universe because of its prime location. This is not because it travels close to the cosmos or how superior the data processing is.

The Hubble is present at an altitude of an estimated 332 miles above Earth, completing one whole orbit in 95 minutes at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour.

Because it’s present right above the Earth’s atmosphere, the Hubble gets a clear wide-field image of the entire Universe. This is because the atmosphere acts as a protective cover for humankind and blocks harmful radiation from the sun.

As beneficial as that is, the giant shield also absorbs certain electromagnetic wavelengths and blurs light. This makes telescopes placed on-ground to get a disturbed or faint image of the cosmos.

The Hubble was placed above the Earth’s protective shield. It was equipped with advanced cameras to get sharp images of space beyond time. The only disadvantage is that it cannot be relied on to make deep observations about the Earth.

Can the Hubble Telescope See Outside the Milky Way?

Yes, the Hubble Space Telescope can see outside the Milky Way. It has not only observed stars beyond our own galaxy. It also studies neighboring galaxies like Andromeda, Magellanic Clouds, and even planets orbiting different suns.

The stars of the Milky Way can be seen by the naked eye. And you may also observe the Andromeda galaxy in some parts of the world. The Hubble telescope is engineered to view the cosmos till its very edge.

In fact, one of its primary cameras, the WFC3, has identified a galaxy located around 96% back to the Big Bang. The delivery was legendary and considered one of the best discoveries of the time.

The Hubble Space telescope managed to locate the GN-z11 at 13.4 billion light years, the very edge of time, and it changed everything we knew of the Universe.

Who Decides What the Hubble Telescope Looks At?

All the operations and mechanics of the Hubble Space Telescope are overseen by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Every proposal sent out to use the Hubble is selected through a rigorous screening process headed by a Time Allocation Committee. It consists of 150 scientists of diverse backgrounds that evaluate the proposals based on scientific merit.

Once approved by the director of STScI, the proposal for the Hubble telescope is scheduled, the resulting observations are gathered, and imaging data is processed.

What Kind of Images Does the Hubble Space Telescope Take?

The Hubble Space Telescope is outfitted with two primary camera systems: the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). Both work jointly to process wide-field images of the cosmos. Here’s a deeper look into the imaging capabilities and a few shortcomings of the Hubble telescope:

Color Wavelengths

All images coming in directly from the Hubble are in grayscale. Scientists and astronomers use different color filters for the telescope. Select the right exposure and label the resulting color according to the filter’s specific wavelength. This is applied to Hubble’s raw image to create a composite color image.

Because some colors and patterns aren’t visible to the naked eye, parts of the images, like infrared wavelengths. They are often labeled for easy observation. This is also sometimes done for newly discovered galaxies, stars, and certain elements.

Captioned under the photograph, you’ll notice M (Messier) and NGC (New General Catalog) written. This corresponds to the catalog of cosmic objects they belong in and doesn’t denote anything related to the actual imaging.

Data Gallery

All the data and images that are processed within Hubble’s instruments are available for the public at the Hubble Legacy Archive. It comes along with special footprints.

Missing Observations

The Hubble Space Telescope was first equipped with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). It had four light detectors out of which three had a wide field view while the fourth had a short field view but better resolution.

So, when an image was captured, a ‘step’ effect in the result was observed where some parts of the image were either blank or incredibly dark. It meant there was no data or observation available for that specific area.

The WFPC2 was replaced by WFC3 in 2009.

What Has the Hubble Space Telescope Discovered?

Space telescope

Since April 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has been doing rounds of the universe. It gathers data from exceptional distances and it has all amounted to over 1.4 million observations which were used in almost 16,000 studies! Here’s a short overview of what the Hubble is credited with:

Gamma-Ray Bursts

Every galaxy ‘explodes’ a few times in a million years. It produces a flash of energy as strong as the sun can in about 10 billion years! That energy is known as a Gamma-Ray Burst and the rare cosmic explosion was finally captured by the Hubble Space telescope.

Age of the Universe

When the GN-z11 was first observed by the Hubble, scientists were baffled to note how far the distance in time it was present. The data of 13.4 billion years has since been understood to be the age of the Universe. The very edge of all that can be observed in the space field.

Expansion of the Universe

Because data from Hubble is consistently released for analysis. Scientists have been able to observe the brightness of supernovae and distant stars. They noticed it had dulled and become faint over time. It meant the elements were moving further away. They discovered the Universe was expanding quickly, fuelled by ‘dark energy.’

Black Hole

Astronomers believe that at the heart of every galaxy lies a supermassive black hole that keeps it anchored. The discovery was credited to Hubble’s identification of a ‘moving’ black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Planetary Storms

The Solar System was truly unveiled as the Hubble telescope launched above the Earth’s atmosphere. We could observe the different climates of every world, their changing temperatures, and orbits around the sun. We could also identify different storms on the planet and their changing nature.

Moons of Pluto

Also credited as one of the best discoveries of the time, two different moons were spotted by the Hubble on Pluto. Named Nix and Hydra, the telescope observed the moons orbited around three times away from the HI-planets by the main moon Charon. This is also why the pair was almost 5000 times fainter than Pluto.

Dark Matter

Since the Hubble can see more than 10 billion light years away, it has managed to shed light on the deepest, darkest energies in that frame of the Universe. It explains why supernovae are growing fainter over the years, the expansion of the universe as well as the gamma-ray bursts. All of it leads back to dark matter.

Atmosphere of Exoplanets

There are over 4000 planets discovered other than the eight in our solar system. They are known as exoplanets. They orbit around other stars instead of the Sun. For the first time, Hubble captured an exoplanet in visible light and even detected an alien world’s atmosphere.

Is the Hubble Space Telescope Being Replaced?

The Hubble Space telescope has been retired for servicing missions and is designated to return sometime around 2030. Until then, it’s still operational in space and is consistently traveling back to Earth at a steady pace.

Since there’s nothing wrong with the equipment or its advancement, the Hubble isn’t technically being replaced. However, it will be succeeded by the James Webb Space Telescope, which is engineered to perform on a different level than the Hubble.

In short, Hubble is being upgraded and not updated.

The James Webb Space Telescope already launched into orbit on December 25, 2021. It observes the Universe in infrared wavelengths. It can travel back in time and dive deep into how the Universe evolved and the planets were formed.

In its short time, Webb has discovered massive galaxies that are forming and unveiling in the Southern Ring Planetary Nebula.

Since it’s right up there with the Hubble, the pair work jointly in making observations about the Universe and will continue to do so until the Hubble returns to Earth.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does Hubble have left?

The Hubble Space Telescope is set to return around mid to late 2030. It was given an estimated 15-year life expectancy which has since passed. Although it is still operational, there are no future servicing missions planned for the Hubble. It will either land in the Pacific Ocean or be sent back up to a circle in a higher orbit.

Why can’t the Hubble Space Telescope make observations of the Earth?

The Hubble Space Telescope is specially equipped with cameras and wide-field instruments that can see faint objects. Since it is nearer to the Earth, the bright light of the green planet can damage the system. It also moves too fast in orbit for Hubble to focus.

How do the mirror, camera, and other instruments of the Hubble stay protected from dust and debris in space?

The mirror, camera, and other data instruments are fitted quite deep in the telescope, protecting them from dust and flying debris. If stray particles do manage to sit on mirrors, the damage on imaging is negligible.

How far back in time could Hubble see?

The Hubble Space Telescope can see back approximately 1 billion years. With advanced repairs and upgrades on the machinery, the technological marvel has managed to place an age on the Universe. The Universe is estimated to be 13.7 billion light-years old.

Final Thoughts

Knowing how far the Hubble telescope can see and the legacy it is leaving behind, it’s a real treat to look forward to everything the James Webb Space Telescope, its successor, will amount to. Thanks to Edwin Hubble, the science, space, and technology field has advanced almost a billion light years in just under a century. This is just the beginning!


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