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A Galactic Collision: the Best View Yet [VIDEO]

Aug 26, 2014 09:33 PM EDT

An international team of astronomers has managed to obtain the best images of a collision between two galaxies ever seen. Light from the collision has taken a significant amount of time to reach Earth, and what we're seeing is an inter-galactic clash that took place when the Universe was half its current age.

According to a team of researchers watching this ancient battle of the galaxies unfold, they were able to see it in remarkable clarity thanks not only to NASA and ESA's Hubble Space Telescope, but also to a host of other ground and space telescopes, and a massive natural magnifying glass.

"While astronomers are often limited by the power of their telescopes, in some cases our ability to see detail is hugely boosted by natural lenses, created by the Universe," lead researcher Hugo Messias said in a recent statement. "Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity that, given enough mass, light does not travel in a straight line but will be bent in a similar way to light refracted by a normal lens."

Messias, who hails from the Universidad de Concepción and the Centro de Astronomia e Astrofísica da Universidade de Lisboa, authored a study on this remarkable viewing strategy that was recently published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

According to the work of Messias and his colleagues, cosmic "magnifying lenses" are created by an effect aptly called gravitational lensing, where the strong gravities of galaxies and galaxy clusters deflect light from object behind them with incredibly strong gravitational forces alone.

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[Credit: ESA/Hubble & ESO/M. Kornmesser]

However, it takes a bit of luck to come across these chance lenses.

"These chance alignments are quite rare and tend to be hard to identify," Messias said, "but, recent studies have shown that by observing at far-infrared and millimetre wavelengths we can find these cases much more efficiently."

Still, when combined with the power of the Hubble and multiple other ground and orbital observatories, a natural magnifying glass can provide a unique view of the Universe. In this most recent case, astronomers were able to see the remarkable event of colliding galaxies.

"We have been able to locate this very fortunate alignment, take advantage of the foreground galaxy's lensing effects and characterize the properties of this distant merger," Messias added. "It is very much a testament to the power of telescope teamwork."

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