Beyond Star Trek: Hubble Probes the Final Frontier

The Hubble Space Telescope continues to use massive galactic clusters to create natural cosmic lenses to superboost its observing powers.

Just as "Star Trek Beyond" hits theaters, Hubble has released its own view of the final frontier.

Located some four billion light-years away, the Abell S1063 galaxy cluster creates a dazzling scene. The sheer mass of the cluster has corralled light from galaxies that exist way beyond Hubble's observing capabilities, creating those strange-looking arcs and warped galactic shapes.

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The light from these far-away galaxies travels through the cluster, but as the space-time surrounding the cluster is warped by its mass, the light is deflected -- a bit like how the path of light is refracted through a magnifying lens. And it has the same effect; distant objects are magnified by these cosmic lenses, boosting Hubble's already impressive magnification. This is known as gravitational lensing and it is a direct prediction from Einstein's theory of general relativity.

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The coolest thing is that Abell S1063 contains images of 16 background galaxies and one of those primordial galaxies existed only a billion years after the Big Bang. This ancient specimen comes from the first generation of galaxies to appear in the universe, so its light has taken nearly 13 billion years to travel from that galaxy, through the space-time magnification in the Abell S1063 cluster and into Hubble's lens.

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Though seeing galaxies from the dawn of the universe is a scientific goldmine in itself, measurements of their distorted shapes can help astronomers map the distribution of dark matter within the cluster, helping us further refine our theories on what this mysterious mass could be.

This most recent observation is a part of Hubble's Frontier Fields program that really pushes the envelope for the veteran telescope. By combining Hubble's unobstructed view of the visible universe and using this quirk of general relativity, we are learning so much more about the early universe, spying some galaxies that existed only a few hundred million years after the birth of the universe and providing compelling new clues as to the nature of some of the biggest mysteries beyond our current cosmological understanding.

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But when looking at these primordial galaxies, it's almost like we're studying prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in amber. But these galactic images are produced by ancient light that is only just catching up with us from our universe's eternal expansion.

It's light from the cosmic frontier, trapped in spacetime.

GALLERY: Hubble's Greatest Hits

As part of Science Channel Weekend, Discovery Channel premiered "Telescope" on Feb. 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, a "dynamic journey behind the scenes of the next step in the evolution of telescopes: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope," directed by Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn. This next-generation telescope will be 100 times more powerful than the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, but Hubble, which has been observing the cosmos for quarter of a century, continues to dazzle us with stunning views of the universe. As we look forward to the revolutionary James Webb, let's take a look back over the past 12 months of discoveries made by the most famous space telescope of all time.

Hubble is famed for the deep views of the cosmos it is able to generate, seeing some of the earliest galaxies that formed billions of years ago. But with the help of a spacetime quirk, as predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago, Hubble is now using gravitational lensing as a means to superboost its vision even further. As part of the Frontier Fields project, this observation revealed hundreds of baby galaxies never before seen, from just 600 million years after the Big Bang.

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Galaxies are certainly Hubble's "thing" and these last 12 months have been no different. Seen here is one such galaxy, but it can't be easily categorized; it's neither elliptical or spiral, it is "irregular." Though they don't seem to conform to specific formation rules, irregular galaxies are still beautiful, as this example shows.

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Not to be left out on 2015's feverish buildup to "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" in December, Hubble released this very sci-fi view of a Herbig-Haro (HH) object -- basically a violent young star. This particular example seems to be channeling its own Star Wars spirit, producing a double-bladed lightsabre.

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First observed in 2014, this ancient supernova has popped up three more times, in different locations in a galactic cluster. This quirk of spacetime -- gravitational lensing -- can cause beams of light to travel different paths around massive objects. Sometimes, as Hubble has shown, although they all originate from the same source, 4 points of light can appear as a cross (nicknamed an "Einstein Cross").

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Not forgetting the objects in our own backyard, Hubble was commanded to spend 10 hours looking at the biggest planet in our solar system, revealing previously unseen detail in the gas giant's beautiful atmosphere. Watch Jupiter's Big Red Spot rage in one of the most stunning 2-frame animations of the year.

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Ready for some hard core physics? Though Hubble can't technically "see" black holes themselves, it can certainly see their impact on local space. And in this case, the space telescope saw relativistic shocks in the flow of material blasting from a supermassive black hole 260 million light-years from Earth.

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In new images released by Hubble, some stunning detail in the nebulous aftermath of a supernova has been revealed. Shown here is the cooling plasma in the Veil Nebula, the remnant of a star that exploded 8,000 years ago.

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In April 2015, Hubble officially turned 25 years old and to celebrate this view of the star-forming region in the cluster Westerlund 2 in the Gum 29 interstellar cloud nebula was released. In the observation is a 2 million year-old cluster of around 3,000 stars that are in the process of being born.

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Like all good parties, there's going to be some damage. And this is certainly the case for the young bright stars inside the open cluster Trumpler 14 where a huge void is being blasted into a star-forming nebula by the baby stars it once nurtured.

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You may remember Hubble's early observations of the "Pillars Of Creation" that featured giant columns of dust and gas, beaded with young stars in their stellar cocoons. Now Hubble has revisited the Pillars to reveal a new 3-D view showing us a lot more spatial detail in this famous photo.

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Hubble has shown itself to be very adept at discovering planets orbiting other stars and the stellar disks they are birthed from. In these new observations of the young star Beta Pictoris' protoplanetary disk, a strange stirring was detected in the disk's dust -- revealing the presence of an otherwise invisible giant exoplanet.

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Trapped in a vast, empty region of the universe this galaxy seems to be the loneliest galaxy in the universe. Voids are known to exist throughout the cosmos, flanked by a "web" of dark matter and galaxies, but they are not


empty. Often, as this elegant spiral galaxy shows, entire galaxies can become marooned and there is little idea as to whether they were born there, alone, or flung there billions of years after some massive gravitational upheaval.

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