By applying a new computational analysis to a galaxy magnified by a gravitational lens, astronomers have obtained images 10 times sharper than what Hubble could achieve on its own, according to U.S. space agency NASA.
The results revealed an edge-on disk galaxy studded with 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, according to NASA.
"When we saw the reconstructed image we said, 'Wow, it looks like fireworks are going off everywhere,'" Jane Rigby, astronomer of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.
According to the new research, recently published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and two additional papers published in The Astrophysical Journal, the galaxy in question, which is so far away that we see it as it only 2.7 billion years after the big bang, 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.
Between the target galaxy and Earth, the gravity of a giant cluster of galaxies distorts the more distant galaxy's light, stretching it into an arc and also magnifying it almost 30 times.
Researchers had to develop special computer code to remove the distortions and reveal the disk galaxy as it would normally appear.
Without the magnification boost of the gravitational lens, the disk galaxy would appear perfectly smooth and unremarkable to Hubble, said Traci Johnson of the University of Michigan, lead author of two of the three papers describing the research.