Photograph by NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI)
Read Caption

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the galaxy cluster Abell S1063. This is one of six being studied by the Hubble Frontier Fields program, which has produced the deepest images of gravitational lensing ever made.

Photograph by NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI)

New Hubble Picture Reveals a Warped View of Galaxies

A galaxy cluster is so massive that its gravity bends light like a lens—making it extremely useful for peering deep into the cosmos.

Days before the latest Star Trek movie release, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Frontier Fields program has released a breathtaking picture of the final frontier: a stunning view of a galaxy cluster so enormous it visibly warps the very fabric of spacetime.

The cluster, Abell S1063, is a behemoth that stretches about 20 million light-years across and weighs about four quadrillion times more than the sun. It’s also deceptively bright: While the new image doesn’t show it, the cluster is one of the brightest X-ray sources of its kind, as the cluster’s member galaxies collide into one another and glow from the wreckage.

Abell S1063 also piques astronomers’ interest because it acts like a cosmic magnifying glass. The cluster’s intense gravity warps the spacetime around it and bends passing light, much like a lens—a key prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The effect distorts and amplifies the appearance of galaxies behind Abell S1063, seen in the picture as stringy, stretched arcs, letting scientists gaze at celestial bodies that otherwise would be too distant and dim to see.

“It really acts like a telescope,” says Roberto Terlevich of Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics.

Terlevich has already used it as one: Recently, he and his colleagues gazed through Abell S1063 to get a magnified look at ID11, a dim, compact star cluster a whopping 10 billion light-years away. Without Abell S1063’s help, it would be far too faint for astronomers to see.

“ID11 is one of the most distant [faint] objects we can study,” says Terlevich. “We’re seeing it as it was 10 thousand million years ago.”

Beyond its scientific merit, Abell S1063 also serves as a testament to the beauty of the cosmos—and the Hubble Space Telescope’s dedication to chronicling it.

“The images are beautiful,” says Terlevich. “You cannot stop watching them, really, even for professional astronomers.”

Follow Michael Greshko on Twitter.