A donut-like ring of light, which looks as spooky as it is spectacular, has allowed scientists to observe what's going on in a galaxy near the beginning of time.
This circle, often known as Einstein ring after the brilliant physicist who predicted its existence back in 1915, is actually a light smear caused by a lensing effect that occurs when a foreground object with strong gravity magnifies the light of a more distant galaxy behind it.
According to a statement released by Hubble Space Telescope, we are viewing the galaxy in the ring as it was around a whopping 9 billion years ago. This corresponds to when the universe was only about one-third its current age of 13.8 billion years!
A view through the 'Molten Ring'
Nicknamed "Molten Ring", the circle has been cataloged as GAL-CLUS-022058s, and it's seen in the Fornax constellation, the Furnace, in the southern hemisphere, and if you think it looks familiar, you may very well be right. The image was first released in 2020, with experts stating it was one of the most complete Einstein rings ever cataloged.
Afterward, researchers resurrected archival data collected by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope to calculate the galaxy's distance at 9.4 billion light-years and were able to recreate the smears and duplications of the Molten Ring into the galaxy that formed it using Hubble's photos, which provided insights about its evolution.
Through Hubble's images it was revealed that the galaxy lies in the sequence of star-forming galaxies, which is a correlation between galaxy mass and star formation rate. This galaxy originated from a time when star formation was at an all-time high, with new stars forming at a rate of 70 to 170 solar masses each year.
"This was a time when the universe was going through a 'baby boom,' forming thousands of stars at a prolific rate. The magnified image of the galaxy gives astronomers a close-up glimpse into the distant past," the Hubble statement explained.
According to Nikolaus Sulzenauer, a Ph.D. student at the Max Plank Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and a member of the research team, "The detection of molecular gas, of which new stars are born, allowed us to calculate the precise redshift and thus gives us confidence that we are truly looking at a very distant galaxy," per a statement released by the European Space Agency, a partner in the project.
So, what can we learn from this star-forming period in the universe's history? Usually, we can't see into galaxies back then that well since, in addition to their distance, they were incredibly dusty. Studying this period can help scientists understand how today's galaxies evolved.