Objects in the mirror may seem closer than they appear.
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An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range from cosmic near neighbours to objects seen in the early years of the Universe. The 14-hour exposure shows objects around a billion times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye.
This new Hubble image showcases a remarkable variety of objects at different distances from us, extending back over halfway to the edge of the observable Universe. The galaxies in this image mostly lie about five billion light-years from Earth but the field also contains other objects, both significantly closer and far more distant.
Studies of this region of the sky have shown that many of the objects that appear to lie close together may actually be billions of light-years apart. This is because several groups of galaxies lie along our line of sight, creating something of an optical illusion. Hubble’s cross-section of the Universe is completed by distorted images of galaxies in the very distant background.
These objects are sometimes distorted due to a process called gravitational lensing, an extremely valuable technique in astronomy for studying very distant objects. This lensing is caused by the bending of the space-time continuum by massive galaxies lying close to our line of sight to distant objects.
One of the lens systems visible here is called CLASS B1608+656, which appears as a small loop in the centre of the image. It features two foreground galaxies distorting and amplifying the light of a distant quasar the known as QSO-160913+653228. The light from this bright disc of matter, which is currently falling into a black hole, has taken nine billion years to reach us — two thirds of the age of the Universe.