Nature Created a Zoom Lens to Capture a Photo Four Billion Years in the Making

Nature Created a Zoom Lens to Capture a Photo Four Billion Years in the Making

"Fact is stranger than fiction" might never be more true than when it comes to deep space science. The Hubble Space Telescope recently captured images of the Abell S1063 galaxy cluster, and they give us insight deep into the past.

If you're not familiar with gravitational lensing, it's a phenomenon first correctly predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Because massive objects distort the spacetime fabric around them, light itself will be bent when traveling through that fabric, creating a magnification effect. It was first confirmed in 1979, and astronomers now take advantage of it to see farther into space than we would be capable of otherwise. 

A shot of S1063, whose gravitational lensing magnifies and brings into view galaxies even farther away.

The shot you're looking at above shows S1063 as it looked four billion years ago. In other words, the light that created this image had to travel 23,510,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles to reach the telescope. For comparison, here's a wide-field shot of S1063 from the ground.

Gravitational lensing doesn't just help us see farther into space. It causes false copies of galaxies to appear in images, and the distribution of these copies tell scientists more about how gravity is distorting the image and thus, more about the distribution of matter inside the galaxy cluster. Science is remarkable. 

Images from NASA, ESA, J. Lotz (STScI), and Digitized Sky Survey 2, used under public domain.

[via Gizmodo]

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3 Comments

Chris Himstedt's picture

Cool article. The things we take for granted usually amaze me once they are pointed out.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's exactly why I love space. :)

Vladimir Feldman's picture

I hate to say it, but it is not a zoom lens -- it is definitely a prime :).