A ‘wow’ moment for the astronomy community

NORTHAMPTON — When Smith College astronomy professor James Lowenthal got images back from the Hubble Space Telescope this year, his initial response was simple: “Wow!”

What he was looking at were the brightest infrared galaxies in the universe — close-up views of rare, ultrabright collections of stars from the early universe that are furiously producing even more stars. Those views, Lowenthal said speaking at his office on Tuesday, may someday help answer a fundamental question about the history of the cosmos: “how did galaxies form and evolve?”

The images Lowenthal was observing made use of a well-known effect called “gravitational lensing.” Essentially, the light from those 22 distant galaxies passes through the gravitational field of a closer massive object, which acts as a kind of cosmic magnifying glass for researchers on Earth.

That foregrounded, natural “lens” allows astronomers to see otherwise impossible-to-see pictures of the distant universe. Light traveling from those galaxies takes billions of years to reach Earth, so researchers are quite literally looking into the past at galaxies from as long as 12 billion years ago — about 90 percent of the way back to the Big Bang, according to Lowenthal.

Lowenthal presented those images at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas, last month.

“The reaction has been in our scientific community, ‘This is so, so cool,’” Lowenthal said of the response from his colleagues.

But before Lowenthal could take that peek into the past with his fellow researchers — including Min Yun, Kevin Harrington, Patrick Kamieneski and Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst — they had to write a scientifically rigorous proposal laying out their case for getting highly sought-after time on the Hubble telescope.

“We convinced them it would be really cool,” Lowenthal said of the proposal. “And wow! It was really cool.”

Lowenthal said Yun and others cleverly discovered…

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