Hubble pushed beyond limits to spot clumps of new stars in distant galaxy

Star-formation regions
An illustration portrays what distant star-formation regions might look like up close. According to new research, the regions are clumpy and span about 200 to 300 light-years, contradicting earlier theories.
Courtesy of
NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)
University Communications

When it comes to the distant universe, even the keen vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope can only go so far. Teasing out finer details requires clever thinking and a little help from a cosmic alignment with a gravitational lens.

By applying a new computational analysis to a galaxy magnified by a gravitational lens, astronomers have obtained images ten 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.

“When we saw the reconstructed image we said, ‘Wow, it looks like fireworks are going off everywhere,’” said astronomer Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The galaxy in question is so far away that we see it as it appeared 11 billion years ago, only 2.7 billion years after the big bang. It is one of more than 70 strongly lensed galaxies studied by the Hubble Space Telescope, following up targets selected by the Sloan Giant Arcs Survey, which discovered hundreds of strongly lensed galaxies by searching Sloan Digital Sky Survey imaging data covering one-fourth of the sky.

“Mining the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has given us the opportunity to peer inside a distant star-forming galaxy with a sharpness of vision never before allowed,” said Michael Gladders, associate professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. “Admittedly, it's a highly distorted view—like looking at your reflection in the famous Chicago ‘Bean’—but with some work we can and have reconstructed a detailed image of the distant galaxy.”

Researchers had been grappling with the gravity of a giant cluster of galaxies between the target galaxy and Earth that distorts the more distant galaxy’s light, 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 distant 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.

“There are star-forming knots as far down in size as we can see,” said doctoral student Traci Johnson of the University of Michigan, lead author of two of the three papers describing the research.

Without the magnification boost of the gravitational lens, Johnson added, the disk galaxy would appear perfectly smooth and unremarkable to Hubble. This would give astronomers a very different picture of where stars are forming.

While Hubble highlighted new stars within the lensed galaxy, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will uncover older, redder stars that formed even earlier in the galaxy’s history. It will also peer through any obscuring dust within the galaxy.

“With the Webb Telescope, we’ll be able to tell you what happened in this galaxy in the past, and what we missed with Hubble because of dust,” said Rigby.

These findings appear in a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and two additional papers published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Hubble Space Telescope, which is named after UChicago alumnus Edwin Hubble, is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. The institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

The article was adapted from a story by the Space Telescope Science Institute.