The Hubble Space Telescope has given us many incredible views of the universe. From stars and nebulas shining hundreds of light-years away, to views of closer cosmic objects like Mars and Jupiter, the Hubble provides frequent reminders of just how small we are.
A new, particularly striking photo taken by Hubble and released today drives that point home yet again.
The image reveals new details of a huge cluster of galaxies called Abell 370, which is located about 6 billion light-years away from Earth.
While at first you might think that the densely packed objects shining against the blackness of space in this photo are stars in some cluster in the Milky Way, in reality, every single one of them are galaxies.
If you look closely at the photo, you should be able to see spiral galaxies that look like our own along with yellow-tinged elliptical galaxies that don’t look as familiar.
The Abell 370 photo also shows off a particularly cool cosmic coincidence that Hubble can exploit to humanity’s advantage.
The huge galaxy cluster actually warps the fabric of space and time surrounding it, allowing the cluster to act as a huge lens, magnifying and distorting a spiral galaxy behind it, NASA said in a statement. The more distant galaxy itself is actually twice as far from Hubble as Abell 370.
You can see this lensing effect in the image: The streaks and lines bordering the middle of the cluster represent distortions caused by the cluster’s immense gravity.
Gravitational lenses also serve a serious scientific purpose in that they give researchers a view of what lies behind some of the largest structures in the universe.
This isn’t the first time that Hubble has peered into a dark part of space only to come away with a photo revealing the light emitted by thousands of galaxies billions of years ago.
The first Hubble deep field is still one of the best space photos ever taken (and this space reporter’s personal favorite).
In 1995, not long after spacewalking astronauts repaired the Hubble’s camera, scientists turned the telescope to a blank patch of sky and instructed it to take 342 exposures over the course of 10 days.
Hubble found something unexpected and amazing. Instead of coming away with a series of blank images, the space telescope revealed about 3,000 far-off galaxies hidden within that blank patch of the night sky.
Since that time, NASA scientists have periodically used the Hubble to take more of these kinds of images, revealing never-before-seen galaxies that are allowing us to learn more about just how full our universe really is.
The newest photo marks Hubble’s last “Frontier Field” image, which was a campaign that photographed six galaxy clusters over the course of 560 orbits of Earth using 630 hours of telescope time.