This multiple exposure of existence is caused by gravitational lensing. Large masses can bend spacetime so that even light travels in curves. We're using an entire galaxy as an optic. One of the MACS J1149.6+2223 cluster of galaxies* is bending the light from the Refsdal supernova so that four separate images are seen in the sky, four points of thermonuclear fire shining as an "Einstein Cross." (With more diffuse sources it's possible to bend light all around the lens to form a Chwolson Ring).
*Yes, the way we have to use names like that for entire clusters of galaxies is staggering when you think about it. But even more staggering and amazing is the fact that we can think about it.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
The Refsdal supernova was 9.3 billion light years away. No, don't just move on to the next sentence so quick. That sentence should at least blow every mind on the planet. It's also 20 times brighter than a normal supernova, and supernovae are normally the brightest anything anywhere. It's named for Professor Sjur Refsdal, pioneer of gravitational lensing work, in the most impressive eponymy ever. The lensing galaxy is 5 billion light years away.
The slight delay in the first arrival of each spot in the image -- as if the entire universe was just a set of Sciencemas lights flickering to life to help us celebrate existence -- is incredible data. It'll help increase our understanding of the expansion and geometry of the universe, the mass distribution of everything in it, and even the nature of dark matter. And we've got even more data on the way. Calculations predict a repeat showing within the next decade with more bent light rays racing toward us. Light is speeding across existence and we've already set our watches and primed our cameras. Because our light of consciousness is the finish line for everything that we can see. None of this stuff matters until we say it does.
The supernova is impressive, but it's just nonillions of tons of thermonuclear explosion, an inevitable consequence of the existence of matter. It's like knocking a vase off a table -- a spectacular but utterly inevitable effect of the laws of physics. The lensing galaxy is just another cosmic Katamari of hydrogen atoms which couldn't stop colliding. There are so many of them we need to use 10-digit codes to talk about groups of them. They were witnessed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Only 11 tons, but there's only one of them. Anywhere. It's one of the only things in space that can see as well as shine.
Ruffnax (Crew of STS-125), NASA
The most beautiful thing in the sky was right beside us all along.
Galaxies and stars just happen. The Hubble was built by human hands, and it does more to truly illuminate existence than all those faraway stars in the sky put together.
Look even further by finding the focal length of whiskey, or understand the physics implications of Mario.
Behold more of humanity's greatest hits with The 5 Coolest Things We've Ever Sent Into Orbit and The 5 Most Badass Things Ever Done In Space.
Luke also enjoys plasmapunk, designs the perfect cyborg upgrade, and responds to every single tweet.