NASA and the European Space Agency's mission dedicated to using the universe's natural "zoom lenses" to uncover the farthest galaxies ever is in full swing, with the ESA releasing the first image to come from the Hubble Space Telescope as part of the so-called Frontier Fields program.
The image depicts Abell 2744, the first of the program's six targets. Nicknamed Pandora's Cluster, it was formed when at least four galaxy clusters collided, resulting in a mix of bizarre effects, some of which astronomers had never found before.
A gaggle of hazy elliptical galaxies and a handful of spiral galaxies congregate in the center of the picture, the effects of the cluster's gravity evidenced in the blue arcs and distorted shapes seen throughout the image. According to the ESA, the arcs are distorted images of distant galaxies.
Because Pandora's Cluster is so massive, it acts like a zoom button for anything located behind it through a process known as gravitational lensing. In gravitational lensing, objects like this one amplify the light emitted by anything behind it using their gravitational field.
By studying the cluster, astronomers hope to discover galaxies formed back when the universe was just a few hundred million years old.
"We want to understand when and how the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe, and each great observatory gives us a different piece of the puzzle," Peter Capak, a researcher involved in the Frontier Fields program, said in a statement released by NASA back in October.
According to a study published in the Astrophysical Journal back in November, a number of candidates have already been identified, including five of which that appear to be part of distant systems that have been imaged multiple times due to the cluster's gravitational lens.
"These deep surveys using massive galaxy clusters like Abell 2744 show that looking through cosmic lenses can be an effective and useful way to study the distant Universe," the ESA wrote in a statement.
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