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Smiley Face Captured in Space

Smiley Face in Space
Photo courtesy of NASA/ESA.


The Hubble Space Telescope has managed to capture what looks like a smiley face in space. A cluster of galaxies known as SDSS J1038+4849 appears to form a cheery face posing for the camera. What looks like the eyes are actually two very bright galaxies, and what looks like the “smile” are arcs caused by an effect known as strong gravitational lensing.

And while it is enjoyable to smile at the cuteness of it, the image is also significant in terms of illuminating two scientific phenomena: gravitational lensing and pareidolia

Gravitational lensing is an optical phenomenon that occurs when the  galaxy clusters create a gravitational pull so strong that they warp the time and space surrounding them. They act as cosmic lenses that magnify and distort the light behind them. The blurry lines that form the edges of the face and the smile are a result of bending and warping of light by the gravitational pull of SDSS J1038+4849. This distortion of light to create a circular effect is known as the Einstein Ring.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon that makes this image interesting. Pareidolia is the human predilection for projecting meaning onto seemingly random visual or auditory stimuli — seeing faces or religious symbols on the trunk of trees or a burnt toast, or recognizing animal shapes in passing clouds, for example.

by Ali B. Moe