It's not every day we get to see a supernova, but a single exploding star split into four images is an absolute first.
The stellar explosion in question was captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and appears as four bright yellow dots in the zoomed-in image above, encircling an elliptical galaxy in the foreground. The optical illusion of four exploding stars is produced by an effect known as gravitational lensing, wherein light from the explosion is bent, distorted, and dispersed to four separate points by the immense gravity of the galactic cluster itself.
The elliptical galaxy and its galaxy cluster are 5 billion light-years away from Earth, while the supernova behind it is 9.3 billion light-years away.
According to a paper which appeared Friday in Science, the four images of the stellar explosion are expected to fade over the coming decades. When this happens, astronomers might have the rare opportunity to see the supernova again, as a single image somewhere else in the galactic cluster.
That prediction is based on computer models, which describe the various paths light takes as it travels away from the explosion and through a maze of dark matter inside the galactic grouping. Because each cosmic echo of the supernova is produced by light traversing a unique path, the different images appeared, and may fade out, at different times. Measuring these time delays can offer researchers clues as to the amount and structure of dark matter within the galactic cluster.
Basically we just saw a star blow up. Four times. Michael Bay would be proud. [NASA]
Top image via NASA/ESA/STScI/UCLA