What are we actually seeing when we look at one of the Frontier Fields images? The gravitational lensing that produces the strange, almost artistic-looking effects in the images — the streaks and blobs of light among glowing galaxies – is visually striking, but little of it falls into typical expectations of what we see when we look into the universe.
Let’s break it down by examining this image of galaxy cluster Abell 2744, also known as Pandora’s Cluster. Four separate galaxy clusters containing several hundred galaxies are colliding in this image, providing the vast amount of mass — both normal and, most importantly, dark matter — needed to create a gravitational lens. The galaxies’ mass warps space and brightens, distorts and magnifies the light of nearly 3,000 galaxies located much farther away, behind the cluster.
For simplicity’s sake we’ve highlighted a representative sample of objects in the image. The highlighting therefore doesn’t capture every single object — just a handful of good examples.
In this image, the white circles enclose stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. The stars have a distinctive cross-shape created by light reflecting off the struts in the telescope. We call these diffraction spikes. These spikes only occur with bright, point-like objects, such as relatively nearby stars.
The green circles here capture galaxies that reside in the space between us and the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster. These galaxies are not affected by the gravitational lens – only galaxies behind the cluster are distorted and magnified. If you look at them, you see that their shapes are generally sharp, distinctive and recognizable. There aren’t many of these galaxies – the Frontier Fields project deliberately sought out galaxy clusters that didn’t have a lot of other objects in the way of Hubble’s view.
The yellow circles enclose the galaxies of the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster. These galaxies vary a lot in size, from dwarf galaxies a thousandth of the mass of our Milky Way to monster-sized central galaxies up to 100 times more massive than the Milky Way. Since the clusters are colliding, these galaxies are interacting with one another – each galaxy’s gravity is affecting the other galaxies, though the galaxies that are closest to one another affect each other more strongly. Some galaxies contain greater concentrations of mass than others, and thus have stronger gravitational effects – and make for stronger gravitational lenses.
As we go on, you’ll see that some of the lensed galaxies in this image appear less or more warped than others. This is because the distribution of the cluster’s mass is uneven, and thus the bending of space-time is uneven. Think of it as looking at objects at the bottom of a lake – the surface of the water is uneven, so some of the objects are more distorted than others.
As a side note, astronomers can actually study the distortion created by gravitational lensing to get an idea of how mass – both visible matter and the invisible dark matter — is distributed within the Abell 2744 galaxy cluster.
Strongly Lensed Galaxies
Now you’re seeing galaxies that are behind Abell 2744, and affected by the cluster’s gravitational lens. The light of these blue-circled galaxies is shining through the cluster, and is clearly distorted in many cases. In fact, many of these galaxies look like lines, streaks and arcs. They’re often concentrated along the same lines, and many of them have similar color schemes – blue with red patches.
Some of these objects are actually the exact same galaxy, because the gravitational lens breaks the image up, as though we were looking through a very strangely shaped piece of glass. This brings us to …
Weakly Lensed Galaxies
These magenta-circled objects are galaxies that are still behind the gravitational lens, but are not strongly distorted. You see distinctive galaxy shapes, like spirals. Their light is still being magnified and brightened, but they fall in an area where the bumpy pane of glass in our earlier metaphor is smooth. They are not as magnified as the strongly lensed galaxies.
The tiny red specks circled here don’t look like much, but they’re actually some of the most intriguing objects in the image. These are the farthest and faintest of the galaxies being magnified by the gravitational lens. Their light could be reaching us from so far away that we see them as they appeared in the early universe – as far back as just millions of years after the Big Bang. (In a universe that’s 13.7 billion years old, that’s extremely far indeed.) One of these objects, Abell2744_Y1, is a candidate for being the most distant galaxy discovered in this image.