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Behold, your galactic center. This Hubble image, captured with the space telescope’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), is the highest-resolution pic of the Milky Way’s galactic center taken to date, taking in a newly discovered group of massive stars, lots of super-hot gas, and roughly 35,000 square light years of space in one sweeping mosaic.
But naturally this image goes far beyond simply being aesthetically pleasing. The galactic center is obscured from our view by gas and dust, but Hubble’s infrared camera can peer through that dense, swirling detritus and focus in on the various structures and processes taking place at our galaxy’s core. That in turn makes it a kind of laboratory in which astronomers can observe and draw conclusions about what’s happening not just in the Milky Way but in other galactic hubs around the universe.
The distorted shapes in the cluster are distant galaxies from which the light is bent by the gravitational pull of an invisible material called dark matter within the cluster of galaxies. This cluster is an early target in a survey that will allow astronomers to construct the most detailed dark matter maps of more galaxy clusters than ever before.
The multi-wavelength survey, called the Cluster Lensing And Supernova survey with Hubble (CLASH), probes, with unparalleled precision, the distribution of dark matter in 25 massive clusters of galaxies. Observations of this galaxy cluster, MACS J1206.2-0847, or MACS 1206 for short, will allow astronomers to construct the most detailed dark matter maps of more galaxy clusters than ever before. MACS 1206 lies 4 billion light-years from Earth. Hubble’s keen vision helped CLASH astronomers uncover 47 multiple images of 12 newly identified faraway galaxies. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH Team