This 14-hour exposure by the Hubble Space Telescope captures objects around a billion times fainter than what we can see with the naked eye.
The new image of a galaxy cluster also offers an amazing cross-section of the universe -- allowing us to see more than halfway to the edge of the observable universe, showcasing galaxies and quasars at different distances and stages in cosmic history.
Objects that appear close together in this patch of sky can actually be billions of light-years apart. That’s because several groups of galaxies lie along our line of sight, distorting (and amplifying) galaxies in the very distant background.
The distortion is due to a process called gravitational lensing, a technique astronomers use to study faraway things. Closer galaxy clusters act like a magnifying glass (or zoom lens) that naturally amplifies the light coming from more distant objects. This allows telescopes like Hubble to see objects that are normally too far and faint. This lensing is caused by the bending of the space-time continuum by massive galaxies lying close to our line of sight to distant objects, ESA explains. Light is bent by the gravity of intervening galaxies, which redirects the light rays.
One of the lens systems visible here is galaxy cluster called CLASS B1608+656, which lies around 5 billion light-years away. It also features two foreground galaxies, Fred and Ginger. Fred, or [FMK2006] ACS J160919+6532, lies near the lens galaxies, while Ginger, or [FMK2006] ACS J160910+6532, is closer to us.
The two gravitational lenses distort and amplify the light of a distant quasar, QSO-160913+653228. That disc of matter is so far from us that its light took 9 billion years to reach Earth -- that’s two thirds the age of the universe.
Near neighbors as well as objects from the early universe are included in this picture, taken with visible and infrared observations. Here’s an annotated version.
The image was spotted during the 2012 Hubble's Hidden Treasures competition, which invited the public to search for the best overlooked images. This well-studied image is only just now being published in full online.
Images: NASA, ESA