The Hubble Space Telescope's ambitious new mission to use natural gravitational lenses to magnify some of the earliest galaxies has returned its first stunning views of the depths of the Cosmos.
At the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting being held this week in Washington, D.C., a breathtaking view of Abell 2744 was showcased by Hubble Frontier Fields astronomers. The massive galactic cluster, which is located nearly 4 billion light-years away, plays host to hundreds of galaxies, all exerting an immense gravitational pull on spacetime.
The space-time warping effect of Abell 2744, also known as the Pandora Cluster, causes the light from more distant galaxies to become warped; distorted by the curvature of spacetime. The distortion has a magnifying effect -- much like the lens of a telescope or that of a magnifying glass -- boosting the light from galaxies that formed some 12 billion years ago, shortly after the Big Bang.
"The Frontier Fields is an experiment; can we use Hubble's exquisite image quality and Einstein's theory of General Relativity to search for the first galaxies?" said Space Telescope Science Institute Director Matt Mountain. "With the other Great Observatories, we are undertaking an ambitious joint program to use galaxy clusters to explore the first billion years of the universe's history."
Hubble observations are being complemented by data from NASA's two other Great Observatories, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, so a complete range of wavelengths can be analyzed, providing astronomers with an unparallelled view into the furthest most regions of the Universe.
According to the Frontier Fields team, although there are a few hundred galaxies of Abell 2744 in the foreground of this first observation, another 3,000 primordial galaxies lurk in the background -- many are distorted and very faint. But these most distant galactic examples would not be visible at all if it wasn't for the magnifying effect of Abell 2744's immense gravitational field. These galaxies appear 10 to 20 times brighter than they would have otherwise.
In an effort to understand as much as possible about Frontier Fields images such as this, data is being made public so the international community of astronomers can analyze our deepest look into the Cosmos, boosting the chances of answering some of the most perplexing mysteries of our Universe and undoubtedly uncovering many more surprises along the way.