The Hubble Telescope Has Captured A  Rare Cosmic Arc.

These images, taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show an arc of blue light behind an extremely massive cluster of galaxies residing 10 billion light-years away. Image credit: NASA/ESA/University of Florida, Gainsville/University of Missouri-Kansas City/UC Davis

Oh, sure. We’ve all seen things in a telescope that we couldn’t quite comprehend… but what if it happened to a professional astronomer using the Hubble Space Telescope?

That’s exactly what occurred recently ‘out there’ in the Universe. It happened when a mysterious arc of light appeared in images behind an extremely massive cluster of galaxies located some 10 billion light years distant. First discovered by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the galaxy grouping was captured in infrared light – as it appeared when the Universe was much younger. The giant arc isn’t just an unusual light, though… it’s the stretched shape of a more distant galaxy distorted by the effect of gravitational lensing. Not surprising… Except for one thing. The arc shouldn’t be there at all.

“When I first saw it, I kept staring at it, thinking it would go away,” said study leader Anthony Gonzalez of the University of Florida in Gainesville, whose team includes researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “According to a statistical analysis, arcs should be extremely rare at that distance. At that early epoch, the expectation is that there are not enough galaxies behind the cluster bright enough to be seen, even if they were ‘lensed,’ or distorted by the cluster. The other problem is that galaxy clusters become less massive the further back in time you go. So it’s more difficult to find a cluster with enough mass to be a good lens for gravitationally bending the light from a distant galaxy.”

We know about galaxy clusters… groups of hundreds to thousands of galaxies all bound together by gravity. We know they are the most massive structures in our Universe and they are frequently used for gravitational lensing purposes. This method has lead astronomers to find many additional galaxies at much greater distances. But it just ain’t normal to spot another galaxy behind such an extremely distant cluster as IDCS J1426.5+3508. It’s the most massive found so far in the early history of the Universe and was found by combining Spitzer’s data with archival optical images taken as part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s Deep Wide Field Survey at the Kitt Peak National Observatory

As of now, this is the first such distant galaxy cluster known to “host” a gravitationally lensed arc. While it might not seem that exciting on the surface, just think… that “arc” may very well be one of the first galaxies to occur after the Big Bang at a time when conditions were ripe for the growth of huge galaxy clusters.

Hubble looking deep in to the distant Universe

The arc was spotted in optical images of the cluster taken in 2010 by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The infrared capabilities of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 helped provide a precise distance, confirming it to be one of the farthest clusters yet discovered. When researchers verified the cluster’s distance, they used Hubble, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) radio telescope, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to independently show that the galactic grouping is extremely massive.

“The chance of finding such a gigantic cluster so early in the universe was less than one percent in the small area we surveyed,” said team member Mark Brodwin of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It shares an evolutionary path with some of the most massive clusters we see today, including the Coma cluster and the recently discovered El Gordo cluster.”

Through careful examination, the astronomers determined the arc to be a star-forming galaxy which existed some 10 to 13 billion years ago – a number the team hopes to further refine by employing the Hubble in more imaging. Their results are described in three papers, which will appeared on-line on June 26, 2012 and will be published in the July 10, 2012 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Gonzalez is the first author on one of the papers; Brodwin, on another; and Adam Stanford of the University of California at Davis, on the third. Daniel Stern and Peter Eisenhardt of JPL are co-authors on all three papers.

“I’m not yet convinced by any of these explanations,” Gonzalez said. “After all, we have found only one example. We really need to study more extremely massive galaxy clusters that existed between 8 billion and 10 billion years ago to see how many more gravitationally lensed objects we can find.”

Original Story Source: JPL/NASA News Release.

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