The Final Frontier of the Universe

[Note: this article is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

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Gravitational lensing in galaxy cluster Abell S1063 Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz (STScI)

Fifty years ago, in 1966, the Star Trek television series debuted. Given the incredible longevity of the franchise, it seems remarkable that the original television series only lasted three seasons.

Each episode famously began with the words “Space: the final frontier.” To me, those thoughts evoke an idea of staring into the night sky and yearning to know what is out there. They succinctly capture an innate desire for exploration, adventure, and understanding. Such passions are the same ones that drive astronomers to decipher the universe through science.

While Captain Kirk and company could make a physical voyage into interstellar space, our technology has (so far) only taken humans to the Moon and sent our probes across the solar system. For the rest of the cosmos, we must embark on an intellectual journey. Telescopes like Hubble are the vehicles that bring the universe to us.

To explore remote destinations, the Enterprise relied upon a faster-than-light warp drive. Astronomy, in turn, can take advantage of gravitational warps in space-time to boost the light of distant galaxies. Large clusters of galaxies are so massive that, under the dictates of general relativity, they warp the space around them. Light that travels through that warped space is redirected, distorted, and amplified by this “gravitational lensing.”

Gravitational lensing enables Hubble to see fainter and more-distant galaxies than would otherwise be possible. It is the essential “warp factor” that motivates the Frontier Fields project, one of the largest Hubble observation programs ever. The “frontier” in the name of the project reflects that these images will push to the very limits of how deeply Hubble can see out into space.

But is this the “final frontier” of astronomy? Not yet.

Abell S1063 Parallel Field - This deep galaxy image is of a random field located near the galaxy cluster Abell S1063. As part of the Frontier Fields Project, while one of Hubble's instruments was observing the cluster, another instrument observed this field in parallel. These deep fields provide invaluable images and statistics about galaxies stretching toward the edge of the observable universe.

Abell S1063 Parallel Field – This deep galaxy image is of a random field located near the galaxy cluster Abell S1063. As part of the Frontier Fields Project, while one of Hubble’s instruments was observing the cluster, another instrument observed this field in parallel. These deep fields provide invaluable images and statistics about galaxies stretching toward the edge of the observable universe.

The expanding universe stretches the light that travels across it. Light from very distant galaxies travels across the expanding universe for so long that it becomes stretched beyond the visible and near-infrared wavelengths Hubble can detect. To see the most distant galaxies, one needs a space telescope with Hubble’s keen resolution, but at infrared wavelengths.

In what may have been an homage to the Star Trek television series with Captain Picard, the project for such a telescope was originally called the “Next Generation Space Telescope.” Today we know it as the James Webb Space Telescope, and it is slated to launch in October 2018. Webb has a mirror 6.5 meters (21 feet) across, can observe wavelengths up to ten times longer than Hubble can observe, and is the mission that will detect and study the first appearances of galaxies in the universe.

In the Star Trek adventures, Federation starships explore our galaxy, and much of that only within our local quadrant. Astronomical observatories do the same for scientific studies of planets, stars, and nebulae in our Milky Way; and go beyond to galaxies across millions and billions of light-years of space. Telescopes like Hubble and Webb carry that investigation yet further, past giant clusters of galaxies, and out to the deepest reaches of the cosmos. With deference to Gene Roddenberry, one might say “Space telescopes: the final frontier of the universe.”

16 thoughts on “The Final Frontier of the Universe

  1. […] 현상은 아인슈타인에 의해 처음으로 예견되었다. 이 허블의 영상은 마지막 탐험 프로그램의 여정 중 […]

  2. […] Esta nítida fotografía del Telescopio Espacial Hubble muestra las galaxias del cúmulo Abell S1063, a unos 4 millones de años luz de distancia. Los arcos azulados más tenues son imágenes ampliadas de las galaxias que se encuentran mucho más allá de Abell S1063, unas dos veces más distantes. Su luz normalmente no detectada es magnificada y distorsionada por la masa gravitacional en gran parte invisible del cúmulo, unas 100 billones de veces la masa del Sol. El efecto se conoce como lente gravitacional y proporciona una prometedora visión de las galaxias del Universo temprano. Einstein lo predijo hace un siglo como una consecuencia de la deformación del espacio-tiempo. La imagen del Hubble forma parte del programa Frontier para explorar la Frontera Final. […]

    • Una aclaración: donde dice “4 millones de años luz” debería decir “4000 millones de años luz”.

  3. […] Explanation: Some 4 billion light-years away, galaxies of massive Abell S1063 cluster near the center of this sharp Hubble Space Telescope snapshot. But the fainter bluish arcs are magnified images of galaxies that lie far beyond Abell S1063. About twice as distant, their otherwise undetected light is magnified and distorted by the cluster’s largely unseen gravitational mass, approximately 100 trillion times the mass of the Sun. Providing a tantalizing glimpse of galaxies in the early universe, the effect is known as gravitational lensing. A consequence of warped spacetime it was first predicted by Einstein a century ago. The Hubble image is part of the Frontier Fields program to explore the Final Frontier. […]

  4. […] project isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  5. […] isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  6. […] project isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  7. […] isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  8. Wow…..how many galaxies….It is just mindboggling to even think that even if 1 or 2 of those galaxies host life, how many such life forms might already exist in this universe? Just mind blowing.

    Will I be right in saying that the speed of light is a limiting factor in our understanding of the observable Universe and that the Universe may probably exist even beyond the 14 billion light year that we currently know of? And that we may probably never be able to see that part of the Universe which is expanding further?

    • Dr. Frank Summers

      Yes, the limit of observable universe is governed by the age of the universe and the speed of light. For a 13.8 billion-year-old universe, we can only see 13.8 billion light-years out into space. There has not been time in the history of the universe for light to travel to us from farther points in space.

  9. […] project isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  10. […] project isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  11. […] isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  12. […] project isn’t actually the galaxy cluster, but what’s behind it. The objects behind Abell S1063 are what astronomers are truly interested in. Those galaxies are from the very early universe, just a billion or so years after the big […]

  13. […] 星系团Abell S1063及其后方的天体 影像提供: NASA, ESA, Jennifer Lotz (STScI)说明: 在这幅清晰的哈伯太空望远镜影像之中心附近,可见到约40亿光年远的大质量星系团Abell S1063的星系。不过,较暗淡的泛蓝光弧,则是位在Abell S1063后方远处的星系之放大影像。这些距离大约是二倍远的后方星系,它们除此之外难以侦测的光,受到大部分不得见、引力质量约为100兆太阳的星系团之放大与扭曲。透过一百年前爱因斯坦所预言、由翘曲时空所造成的引力透镜效应,让我们得以隐约一窥早期宇宙。这幅哈伯影像,是探索终极前沿的前沿造像计画之部分成果。 […]

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