New photos of galactic “arcs and streaks” in space released by NASA’s James Webb telescope show just how trippy a phenomenon called gravitational lensing can look.
Gravitational lensing is a literal warping of spacetime. It occurs when a celestial body with a significant gravitational pull “causes a sufficient curvature of spacetime for the path of light around it to be visibly bent, as if by a lens,” the European Space Agency explains.
Basically, the celestial body will distort the galaxies and stars behind it to someone looking from a distance.
—NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) March 28, 2023
Gravitational lensing also has a magnifying effect, which makes it helpful for scientists studying distant galaxies that may otherwise be too difficult to spot. The SDSS J1226+2149 galaxy cluster shown in this newest photo is around 6.3 billion light years away, in the constellation Coma Berenices, according to the ESA.
Because of this effect, NIRCam, Webb’s primary near-infrared camera, was able to capture a clearer and brighter photo of the Cosmic Seahorse galaxy — shown as a “long, bright, and distorted arc spreading out near the core” in the lower right quadrant.
The revolutionary space telescope, which continues to capture some of the clearest, jaw-dropping photos of the far reaches of the universe, captured gravitational lensing last year in a photo of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster. The “deep field” image, which was the first full-color image NASA unveiled from Webb on July 11, captured galaxies over 13 billion years old.
Photos released in October included a cluster of stars from 5.6 billion light-years away. The light from the MACS0647-JD system is bent and magnified by the massive gravity of galaxy cluster MACS0647.
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