New Star Images Captured by Hubble Telescope With Help From Gravity 'Look Like Fireworks'

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The galaxy cluster SDSS J1110+6459 is about 6 billion light-years from Earth and contains hundreds of galaxies. At left, a distinctive blue arc is actually composed of three separate images of a more distant background galaxy called SGAS J111020.0+645950.8. NASA said the background galaxy has been magnified, distorted and multiply imaged by the gravity of the galaxy cluster in a process known as gravitational lensing. NASA, ESA, and T. Johnson (University of Michigan)

Scientists have looked back in time, further than they usually can with the instruments available to them, at a faraway galaxy composed of bright clumps of newborn stars. The great distance and the time it takes light to travel that far mean the galaxy appears to these Earth-bound humans as it was 11 billion years ago, or just 2.7 billion years after the Big Bang.

"When we saw the reconstructed image we said, 'Wow, it looks like fireworks are going off everywhere,'" astronomer Jane Rigby of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope, taken advantage of a natural phenomenon and applied new computational methods to capture closer-up and more detailed images—about 10 times sharper than they could with the telescope alone. The findings were published in three papers: One in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and two in The Astrophysical Journal.

Hubble was aimed in the direction of galaxies that would normally appear "smooth and unremarkable," according to NASA. But from this angle, the clusters of stars in between Hubble and the galaxy in question have so much mass that they act as a second, natural telescope, magnifying it and making it brighter.

"The gravity from all that mass has distorted the image that we see of the background galaxy," like a telescope or a "funhouse mirror," Rigby tells Newsweek, explaining that it's an effect that Albert Einstein predicted and that has been proven over and over again since. All of the red and orange clusters in the images are the intermediaries that act as a gravitational lens to make the blue-tinged clusters visible. The main target here—which appears as an arc, like a smile flipped on its side—is magnified by a factor of 28, Rigby says.

However, the double telescope also warps the image. In this case, it stretches out the arc and makes it appear multiple times. A new computational technique developed by Traci Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and lead author on two of the three papers, helped researchers figure out how the galaxy was warped and undo it. They've reconstructed what they believe the image would look like without the distortions.

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In this Hubble photograph of a distant galaxy cluster, a spotty blue arc stands out against a background of red galaxies. That arc is actually three separate images of the same background galaxy. The background galaxy has been gravitationally lensed, its light magnified and distorted by the intervening galaxy cluster. On the right: How the galaxy would look to Hubble without distortions. NASA, ESA, and T. Johnson (University of Michigan)

The new images provide a view of the faraway stars as they would appear with a telescope nearly 33 feet in diameter; Hubble is 8 feet in diameter, Rigby says. She adds that it helps offer a "sneak preview of what universe would look like if we could build a much larger telescope than Hubble."

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This artist's illustration portrays what the gravitationally lensed galaxy SDSS J1110 6459 might look like up close. A sea of young, blue stars is streaked with dark dust lanes and studded with bright pink patches that mark sites of star formation. The patches' signature glow comes from ionized hydrogen, like we see in the Orion Nebula in our own galaxy. NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope, which has a 21.3-foot diameter and is scheduled to launch in October 2018, will offer views even farther out and through dust that may be obscuring Hubble's view. With Webb, researchers will be able to observe older stars and galaxies as they appeared in the first billion years after the Big Bang, which will help them continue studying how star formation evolved over time.

Hubble and Webb, Rigby says, "see so far out in the universe that they're acting like time machines."