The Hubble Space Telescope has recently embarked on a new mission to study the universe’s oldest and most massive galaxies, NASA announced yesterday.
Dubbed Beyond Ultra-deep Frontier Fields And Legacy Observations (BUFFALO), this novel observation campaign builds on the vastly successful Frontier Fields project, which ended in 2017 after surveying six far-flung galaxy clusters for a period of four years.
The new initiative will continue to monitor the same six galaxy clusters with the goal of investigating “when the most massive and luminous galaxies in the universe formed and how early galaxy formation is linked to dark matter assembly,” explains the Hubble Space Telescope website.
According to NASA, “the BUFFALO program is designed to identify galaxies in their earliest stages of formation” and peer back in time less than 800 million years after the Big Bang.
Led by the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark and Durham University in the U.K., the BUFFALO mission involves nearly 100 astronomers from 13 countries and will be looking into “how the dynamics of the clusters influence the galaxies in and around them,” while also striving to capture images of distant galaxies and supernovas.
The project already kicked off with an investigation into a massive galaxy cluster known as Abell 370, which Hubble has imaged now for a second time.
Nestled some four billion light-years away in the Cetus constellation (the “Sea Monster,”) Abell 370 offers a remarkable example of a phenomenon called gravitational lensing and is one of the first galaxy clusters in which this event was observed.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, gravitational lensing refers to an effect of gravitation associated with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and which is typically exhibited by massive galaxies or galactic clusters.
The principle of gravitational lensing states that mass can bend light, which means that massive galaxies can be used as “cosmic magnifying glasses” to spot distant, faint galaxies lying far behind them that otherwise would remain unseen.
The way this works is by bending and magnifying the light coming from these galaxies, which translates into a warped image that appears as an arc or a streak across the sky.
“Like a funhouse mirror, Abell 370 magnifies and stretches images of the background galaxies,” explains the Frontier Fields website.
The program studied the Abell 370 galactic cluster back in 2017 and snapped a gorgeous photo of its gravitational lensing effect in the shape of a distant galaxy nicknamed “the Dragon.”
“The most stunning example of this lensing effect in Abell 370 is ‘the Dragon,’ an extended feature that is probably several duplicated images of a single background spiral galaxy stretched along an arc,” noted the website at the time of the photo release.
As part of the new project, Hubble sneaked another peek at the ancient galaxy cluster and looked the warped “Dragon” in the eye one more time.
First identified as a gravitationally lensed galaxy in 1988, “the Dragon” was recently imaged in a much wider view of Abell 370, after Hubble considerable expanded its survey area to encompass adjacent galaxies as well.
The new photo shows the warped galaxy just below the heart of the galactic cluster, while also capturing the impressive surroundings of Abell 370.
“This image shows a massive galaxy cluster embedded in the middle of a field of nearly 8,000 galaxies scattered across space and time,” stated NASA officials.
Seen in the center of the new photo, Abell 370 could help the BUFFALO team uncover even more distant galaxies, thanks to its gravitational lensing effect. This would enable astronomers to explore some of the earliest galaxies in the universe and determine their numbers of distant galaxies with greater accuracy.
For the duration of the project, Hubble will perform 101 orbits and clock in 160 hours of observation time. Coupled with existing Spitzer Space Telescope observations of the same galaxy clusters, the acquired data will serve as a stepping stone for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose strategies of scouring the distant universe with its infrared instruments will be largely based on the findings of the BUFFALO mission.