NASA’s Upcoming Roman Space Telescope Could Image 100 Hubble Ultra Deep Fields at Once

Roman Ultra Deep Field

This composite image illustrates the possibility of a Roman Space Telescope “ultra deep field” observation. In a deep field, astronomers collect light from a patch of sky for an extended period of time to reveal the faintest and most distant objects. This view centers on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (outlined in blue), which represents the deepest portrait of the universe ever achieved by humankind, at visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths. Two insets reveal stunning details of the galaxies within the field.
Beyond the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, additional observations obtained over the past two decades have filled in the surrounding space. These wider Hubble observations reveal over 265,000 galaxies, but are much shallower than the Hubble Ultra Deep field in terms of the most distant galaxies observed.
These Hubble images are overlaid on an even wider view using ground-based data from the Digitized Sky Survey. An orange outline shows the field of view of NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Roman’s 18 detectors will be able to observe an area of sky at least 100 times larger than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field at one time, with the same crisp sharpness as Hubble.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Koekemoer (STScI), Acknowledgement: Digitized Sky Survey

A Roman Ultra Deep Field would collect millions of galaxies, including some of the rarest and most distant

In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope stared at a blank patch of the sky for 10 straight days. The resulting Deep Field image captured thousands of previously unseen, distant galaxies. Similar observations have followed since then, including the longest and deepest exposure, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Now, astronomers are looking ahead to the future, and the possibilities enabled by NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

The Roman Space Telescope will be able to photograph an area of sky 100 times larger than Hubble with the same exquisite sharpness. As a result, a Roman Ultra Deep Field would collect millions of galaxies, including hundreds that date back to just a few hundred million years after the big bang. Such an observation would fuel new investigations into multiple science areas, from the structure and evolution of the universe to star formation over cosmic time.


This zoom-out animation begins with a view of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (outlined in blue), which represents the deepest portrait of the universe ever achieved by humankind, at visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths. The view then expands to show a wider Hubble survey of that area of sky (white outline), which captured about 265,000 galaxies in a large mosaic. Expanding further, we see the Hubble data overlaid on a ground-based view using data from the Digitized Sky Survey.

An orange outline shows the field of view of NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Roman’s 18 detectors will be able to observe an area of sky at least 100 times larger than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field at one time, with the same crisp sharpness as Hubble.

Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Koekemoer (STScI), and A. Pagan (STScI)

One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic images is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which unveiled myriad galaxies across the universe, stretching back to within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang. Hubble peered at a single patch of seemingly empty sky for hundreds of hours beginning in September 2003, and astronomers unveiled the galaxy tapestry in 2004, with more observations in subsequent years.

NASA’s upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will be able to photograph an area of the sky at least 100 times larger than Hubble with the same crisp sharpness. Among the many observations that will be enabled by this wide view of the cosmos, astronomers are considering the possibility and scientific potential of a Roman Space Telescope “ultra-deep field.” Such an observation could reveal new insights into subjects ranging from star formation during the universe’s youth to the way galaxies cluster together in space.

Roman will enable new science in all areas of astrophysics, from the solar system to the edge of the observable universe. Much of Roman’s observing time will be dedicated to surveys over wide swaths of the sky. However, some observing time will also be available for the general astronomical community to request other projects. A Roman ultra deep field could greatly benefit the scientific community, say astronomers.

“As a community science concept, there could be exciting science returns from ultra-deep field observations by Roman. We would like to engage the astronomical community to think about ways in which they could take advantage of Roman’s capabilities,” said Anton Koekemoer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Koekemoer presented the Roman ultra-deep field idea at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, on behalf of a group of astronomers spanning more than 30 institutions.

As an example, a Roman ultra-deep field could be similar to the Hubble Ultra Deep Field – looking in a single direction for a few hundred hours to build up an extremely detailed image of very faint, distant objects. Yet while Hubble snagged thousands of galaxies this way, Roman would collect millions. As a result, it would enable new science and vastly improve our understanding of the universe.

Structure and History of the Universe

Perhaps most exciting is the possibility of studying the very early universe, which corresponds to the most distant galaxies. Those galaxies are also the rarest: for example, only a handful are seen in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

Thanks to Roman’s wide field of view and near-infrared data of similar quality to Hubble’s, it could discover many hundreds, or possibly thousands, of these youngest, most distant galaxies, interspersed among the millions of other galaxies. That would let astronomers measure how they group together in space as well as their ages and how their stars have formed.

“Roman would also yield powerful synergies with current and future telescopes on the ground and in space, including NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and others,” said Koekemoer.

Moving forward in cosmic time, Roman would pick up additional galaxies that existed about 800 million to 1 billion years after the big bang. At that time, galaxies were just beginning to group together into clusters under the influence of dark matter. While researchers have simulated this process of forming large-scale structures, a Roman ultra-deep field would provide real world examples to test those simulations.

Star Formation Over Cosmic Time

The early universe also experienced a firestorm of star formation. Stars were being born at rates hundreds of times faster than what we see today. In particular, astronomers are eager to study “cosmic dawn” and “cosmic noon,” which together cover a time 500 million to 3 billion years after the big bang when most star formation was happening, as well as when supermassive black holes were most active.

“Because Roman’s field of view is so large, it will be game changing. We would be able to sample not just one environment in a narrow field of view, but instead a variety of environments captured by Roman’s wide-eyed view. This will give us a better sense of where and when star formation was happening,” explained Sangeeta Malhotra of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Malhotra is a co-investigator on the Roman science investigation teams working on cosmic dawn, and has led programs that do deep spectroscopy with Hubble, to learn about distant, young galaxies.

Astronomers are eager to measure star formation rates in this distant epoch, which could influence a variety of factors such as the amount of heavy elements observed. Rates of star formation might depend on whether or not a galaxy lies within a large cluster. Roman will be capable of taking faint spectra that will show distinct “fingerprints” of these elements, and give accurate distances (called redshifts) of galaxies.

“Population experts might ask, what differences are there between people who live in big cities, versus those in suburbia, or rural areas? Similarly, as astronomers we can ask, do the most active star forming galaxies live in very clustered regions, or just at the edges of clusters, or do they live in isolation?” Malhotra said.

Big Data and Machine Learning

One of the greatest challenges of the Roman mission will be learning how to analyze the abundance of scientific information in the public datasets that it will produce. In a sense, Roman will create new opportunities not only in terms of sky coverage, but also in data mining.

A Roman ultra-deep field would contain information on millions of galaxies – far too many to be studied by researchers one at a time. Machine learning—a form of artificial intelligence—will be needed to process the massive database. While this is a challenge, it also offers an opportunity. “You could explore completely new questions that you couldn’t previously address,” stated Koekemoer.

“The discovery potential enabled by the huge datasets from the Roman mission could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, beyond what we might currently envision,” Koekemoer added. “That could be Roman’s lasting legacy for the scientific community: not only in answering the science questions we think we can address, but also new questions that we have yet to think of.”

10 Comments on "NASA’s Upcoming Roman Space Telescope Could Image 100 Hubble Ultra Deep Fields at Once"

  1. With the speed of advancements for these beautiful instruments, they spend half their time down getting upgrades. All worth it for the knowledge that is coming…yummy knowledge. just sayin’…..

  2. Can this new telescopes infrared camera photograph objects that might be approaching our solar system

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 25, 2021 at 3:08 pm | Reply

      It is not dedicated to it, so I don’t expect it to see much further – incoming asteroids and comets are cold (not much IR). I’m sure someone can dig out its specifications and see how much further it can see, if they really want to know.

  3. NASA has a problem. It wants to give every pork-barrel politician a piece of the pie, and unfortunately that pie will never be made.

    James Webb? That is now scheduled for October 2021, years behind schedule and billions of dollars above bid cost.

    Northrop Grumman? Lockheed Martin? Boeing? ULA? Artemis? More pork-barrel stuff that doesn’t work.

    You can bet the “Nancy Grace” [unfortunate name] Roman Space Telescope won’t launch anytime ever.

    NASA’s ability to innovate is no longer. All they can do now is what the last letter in NASA is… administrate.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | January 25, 2021 at 3:16 pm | Reply

      NASA is not launching these missions on behalf of politicians but for astronomers and astrophysicists [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astronomy_and_Astrophysics_Decadal_Survey ].

      “The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey is a review of astronomy and astrophysics literature produced approximately every ten years by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. The report surveys the current state of the field, identifies research priorities, and makes recommendations for the coming decade. The report represents the recommendations of the research community to governmental agencies on how to prioritize scientific funding within astronomy and astrophysics. The editing committee is informed by topical panels and subcommittees, dedicated conferences, and direct community input in the form of white papers summarizing the state of the art in each subdiscipline. The most recent report, Astro2010, was released in 2010.”

      “The top priorities identified by the report include:

      Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) [aka the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope], a proposed space-based telescope to be located at Lagrangian point L2 that will survey and catalogue exoplanets and may help settle questions of the nature of dark energy.”

      Could we cut the unfounded political conspiracy theories for a while!? [Re the US Capitolium attempted state coup which was founded on such.]

  4. Nowhere in the article does it indicate when the Roman telescope is expected to launch. “When?” is one of the basics of journalism.

  5. Babu G. Ranganathan | January 24, 2021 at 2:12 pm | Reply

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    JUST BECAUSE SCIENCE CAN EXPLAIN how an airplane works doesn’t mean that no one designed or made the airplane. And just because science can explain how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Designer and Maker behind them.

    Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells from raw materials such as amino acids and other chemicals, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No human observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing and irreversible net energy decay, even in an open system). Even a hypothetical oscillating universe could not continue to oscillate eternally! Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity shows that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson, even if it existed, would not have created mass from nothing, but rather it would have converted energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because science teaches us from the First Law of Thermodynamics that natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing.

    The supernatural origin of the universe cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    The disorder in the universe can be explained because of chance and random processes, but the order can be explained only because of intelligence and design.

    Gravity may explain how the order found in the precise and orderly courses of thousands of billions of stars is maintained, but gravity cannot explain the origin of that order.

    Some evolutionary astronomers believe that trillions of stars crashed into each other leaving surviving stars to find precise orderly orbits in space. Not only is this irrational, but if there was such a mass collision of stars then there would be a super mass residue of gas clouds in space to support this hypothesis. The present level of residue of gas clouds in space doesn’t support the magnitude of star deaths required for such a hypothesis. And, as already stated, the origin of stars cannot be explained by the Big Bang because of the reasons mentioned above. It’s one thing to say that stars may decay and die into random gas clouds, but it is totally different to say that gas clouds form into stars.

    Even the father of Chaos theory admitted that the “mechanisms” existing in the non-living world allow for only very rudimentary levels of order to arise spontaneously (by chance), but not the kind or level of order we find in the structures of DNA, RNA, and proteins. Yes, individual amino acids have been shown to come into existence by chance but not protein molecules which require that the various amino acids be in a precise sequence just like the letters found in a sentence.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    It’s interesting that Carl Sagan would have acknowledged sequential radio signals in space as evidence of intelligent life sending them, but he wouldn’t acknowledge the sequential structure of molecules in DNA (the genetic code) as evidence of an intelligent Cause. Read my popular Internet article, HOW DID MY DNA MAKE ME.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet articles:

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION (This site answers many arguments, both old and new, that have been used by evolutionists to support their theory)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

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