What better way to celebrate Star Trek’s 50th birthday than to put its opening phrase – “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – into practice? Because that’s exactly what NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope just did: peering deeper into the universe than ever before, exploring the warping of space and time, and uncovering some of the farthest objects ever seen. Or, as NASA calls it: taking a look at the “Final Frontier” – yet another Star Trek reference.
NASA’s Hubble’s latest image unveils a very cluttered-looking universe filled with galaxies near and far. The cluster contains approximately 100 million solar masses and contains something between 51 and 400 galaxies. In the center of the image is the immense galaxy cluster Abell S1063, located 4 billion light years away.
Thanks to Hubble’s sharpness, the photo also unveils the effect of space warping due to gravity – confirming a phenomenon first predicted by Einstein a century ago. The huge mass of the cluster distorts and magnifies the light from galaxies that lie far behind it due to an effect called “gravitational lensing,” which allows Hubble to see galaxies that would otherwise be too small and faint to observe.
This “warp field” makes it possible to get a peek at the very first generation of galaxies, what NASA calls a “sneak peek” of the early universe. Scientists have already found an infant galaxy in the field, as it looked 1 billion years after the big bang. It’s a taste of what the James Webb Space Telescope will be capable of seeing in greater detail when it launches in 2018.
The Frontier Fields program is an ambitious three-year effort to probe the early universe by studying large galaxy lusters. Identifying the magnified images of background galaxies within these clusters will help astronomers to improve their models of the distribution of both ordinary and dark matter in the galaxy cluster. This is key to understanding the mysterious nature of dark matter that comprises most of the mass of the universe.