Looking for the Beginning of Time

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Talk about way out there. The human eye -- with a little help from the Hubble -- has finally started to see the edge of the known universe, scientists say. It took a 36-hour timed exposure and a special infrared lens aboard the orbital telescope to capture the innocuous faint red blobs on film, pictures of which were released Thursday. They're tiny galaxies 12 billion light-years away; we, of course, are seeing them as they were 12 billion years ago. That's significant, since the universe itself is believed to be 13 billion years old. Seen after the first billion clicks on the cosmic odometer, the baby galaxies are doing exactly what modern astronomy says they should: cooling down and forming stars.

Which means that while our predictions for how far the universe extends need a little work, the Big Bang theory is smack on target. And now stargazers want to look even further back in galactic history. "This is an exciting first step into this distant universe," Carnegie astronomer Alan Dressler said. "We're looking for zero time" -- that is, the post-Bang period when matter had not had a chance to form galaxies -- "and we haven't found it yet." Impatient astronomers like Dressler may have to wait until the launch of Hubble's more powerful younger brother in 2007. The universe, after all, does not yield up her secrets that easily.