The Hubble space telescope has been a monumental achievement for space science as the telescope has allowed us to peek into the depths of the Universe like no other telescope and while it is not long before the aging telescope is replaced by powerful ones, there’s still a lot of juice left in it that is helping us make new discoveries.
Recently a team of astronomers pushed the Hubble beyond its limits to spot clumps of new stars forming in a distant galaxy. Researchers used the power of gravitational lensing and Hubble to spot a galaxy that appeared 11 billion years ago, only 2.7 billion years after the big bang.
Researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and colleagues applied a new computational analysis to a galaxy magnified by a gravitational lens and obtained images 10 times sharper than what Hubble could achieve on its own. The results show an edge-on disk galaxy studded with brilliant patches of newly formed stars. The reconstructed image according to astronomers is “like fireworks are going off everywhere”.
Astronomers explain that the gravity of a giant cluster of galaxies between the target galaxy and Earth is distorting the distant galaxy’s light effectively stretching it into an arc and also magnifying it almost 30 times. The team had to develop special computer code to remove the distortions caused by the gravitational lens, and reveal the disk galaxy as it would normally appear.
The resulting reconstructed image revealed two dozen clumps of newborn stars, each spanning about 200 to 300 light-years. This contradicted theories suggesting that star-forming regions in the distant, early universe were much larger, 3,000 light-years or more in size.
If gravitational lensing wouldn’t have been helping us in this discovery, the disk galaxy would appear perfectly smooth and unremarkable to Hubble. This would give astronomers a very different picture of where stars are forming.