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Tuesday
Mar052013

The universe's gamer humor

While digging through the Hubble Hidden Treasures archive, regular citizen Nick Rose found a space invader. Or, actually, a Space Invader. As in, from that video game that came into existence before I did. The actual objects in space do not look like cartoon aliens. But their light makes them appear so by the time it gets to us.

A massive galaxy cluster, Abell 68, between the objects and Earth is skewing their light. Acting like a cosmic "funhouse mirror" (props for apt simile go to NASA), the cluster's gravitation and our particular line-of-sight led to this circus shot:

If only those galaxies could see themselves the way we see them.

So why do we see them this way?

If the checkerboard is spacetime, and the yellow ball is a massive object, this illustration shows how substance changes the local shape of the universe. If the checkerboard is not spacetime and the ball is not massive, I have no idea what it means (Credit: DJ Sadhu).

Relativity, short answer.

Long answer:

The universe doesn't make sense without relativity. Massive stuff and fast stuff just doesn't behave the way Newton's old-school gravity says it should. 

According to general relativity, mass bends spacetime -- the Spandex "fabric" of the universe.

The more mass an object has, the more it warps the universe. Anything that travels within the warped volume has to follow the warps -- it can't just go in a "straight line." If I sent a laser beam across the squirrely space in the illustration to the left, it would curve down into that bowl and arc back up the other side. 

 

 

We can often tell, if the curvature is significant enough, that light has had the traumatizing experience of riding the gravitational roller coaster on its way to our telescopes.

One way the evidence of curvature presents itself is called "gravitational lensing."

When spacetime is hella warped between a galaxy and our telescopes, the galaxy's image and position also appear warped (Credit: NASA).In the illustration to the right, we have a galaxy (upper right, with death lasers coming out of it) and a massive object (center, the blue glowing angel ball). The death lasers, grey, are the galaxy's light. As it nears the glowing angel ball, it can't follow a straight path because spacetime is not straight or flat. The spacetime acts like a lens, changing the projection that reaches Earth, similar to the way a regular magnifiying glass can project a distorted image of your eyeball.

Consequently, the image we see on Earth is much different from a nice, normal spiral. The orange "bananas," as NASA called them in its official caption, are what telescopes actually see. So the galaxy is not only a stretched-out fruit, but it has also turned into twins. The twin orange arrows show the galaxy's apparent position(s), different from the actual position, show by where the grey arrows land on Earth.

Sometimes, the stars galaxies align and make weird-looking images that happen to look like Earthly cultural icons. Sometimes they don't. It sounds like a lesson or a metaphor. You can pretend it is.

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