It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of the universe. It’s hard to imagine even the size of the entire solar system, let alone our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of billions in the universe. In fact, galaxies not only exist alone, but often interact with each other – and often come together in huge groups called galaxy clusters.
This week’s image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows one such galaxy cluster called Abell 1351, located in the constellation Ursa Major. Galaxy clusters are groups of thousands of galaxies held together by gravity, and their masses are measured on the quadrillion solar mass scale. This particular observation shows the impact that so much mass can have on spacetime.
Across the image you can see streaks of light that are images of distant galaxies. Because the galaxy cluster is so massive, it warps spacetime enough that light passing through it bends and scatters like a magnifying glass. This is called gravitational lensing, and it allows researchers to see objects, such as galaxies, much further away than we would normally be able to observe.
There is different degrees of gravitational lensing, depending on the mass of the object acting as a lens. If the lens is massive enough and the light source is close, the light will bend so much that you may see multiple images of the same light source. This is called strong gravitational lensing. There is also an effect called weak gravitational lensing, where the lens is less massive or the light source is far away, which can make the light source appear stretched and larger or in a different shape.
There is also an effect called microlensing, used for exoplanet detection, where light from a distant object (a star in this case) appears brighter because of the body in front of it (the exoplanet).
Both strong and weak microlensing is caused by Abell 1351, and the cluster is being studied both to determine its mass and to see distant galaxies.
“This observation is part of an astronomical album that includes snapshots of some of the most massive galaxy clusters,” said Hubble scientists write. “This menagerie of massive clusters demonstrates interesting astrophysical phenomena such as strong gravitational lensing and provides spectacular examples of massive galaxy evolution.”
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