Hubble views luminous galaxies through gravitational lens


Gravitational lensing provides a magnifying glass to spy fine details of distant galaxies, writes Angus Bezzina.


 These six Hubble Space Telescope images reveal a jumble of misshapen-looking galaxies.
These six Hubble Space Telescope images reveal a jumble of misshapen-looking galaxies punctuated by exotic patterns such as arcs, streaks, and smeared rings. These unusual features are the stretched shapes of the universe's brightest infrared galaxies that are boosted by natural cosmic magnifying lenses. Some of the oddball shapes also may have been produced by spectacular collisions between distant, massive galaxies. The faraway galaxies are as much as 10,000 times more luminous than our Milky Way. The galaxies existed between 8 billion and 11.5 billion years ago.
NASA, ESA, and J. Lowenthal (Smith College)

Just like water distorting the view of objects beneath its surface, gravitational fields have warped images of some of the universe’s brightest infrared galaxies that were recently captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

This process, known as gravitational lensing, occurs when the intense gravity of a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies magnifies the light of fainter, more distant background sources.

While the phenomenon had been seen before, it is shown off to rare effect in the new Hubble Telescope snapshots.

The images are also particularly important because they show relatively tiny details of ultra-luminous starburst galaxies that would be unimaginable without the magnification provided by gravity.

These galaxies are as much as 10,000 times more luminous than the Milky Way and are ablaze with star formation, churning out more than 10,000 new stars in a year.

The reason for this frenzied star production is unknown, however, and these galaxies have traditionally been very difficult to study in visible light because of the dust that they create which cloaks them from view.

Thanks to the magnification provided by gravity in the new images of these galaxies, scientists now have a novel opportunity to examine their inner workings more closely and develop a better understanding of how galaxy and star formation occurs.

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