NASA and the European Space Agency have started a new mission to shed light on the evolution of the earliest galaxies in the Universe.
Using the Hubble Space Telescope, the operation - named the BUFFALO survey - will observe six massive galaxy clusters and their surroundings.
NASA said the mission is important because learning about the formation and evolution of the very first galaxies in the Universe is "crucial for our understanding of the cosmos".
As part of the mission, the Hubble Space Telescope has apparently already detected some of the most distant galaxies known. But their numbers are small, making it hard for astronomers to determine if they represent the Universe at large.
"Massive galaxy clusters like Abell 370, which is visible in this new image, can help astronomers find more of these distant objects," NASA explained.
"The immense masses of galaxy clusters make them act as cosmic magnifying glasses. A cluster's mass bends and magnifies light from more distant objects behind it, uncovering objects otherwise too faint for even Hubble's sensitive vision."
Using this cosmological trick - known as 'strong gravitational lensing' - Hubble is able to explore some of the earliest and most distant galaxies in the Universe, the space giant said.
BUFFAFO's main mission, however, is to investigate how and when the most massive and luminous galaxies in the Universe formed and how early galaxy formation is linked to dark matter assembly.
This, NASA said, will enable astronomers to determine how rapidly galaxies formed in the first 800 million years following the Big Bang, paving the way for observations with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
The BUFFALO survey will then be able to detect the most distant galaxies approximately ten times more efficiently than its predecessor. The survey will also take advantage of other space telescopes which have already observed the regions around the clusters.
The extended fields of view will also allow better three-dimensional mapping of the mass distribution - of both ordinary and dark matter - within each galaxy cluster, said NASA.
These maps help astronomers learn more about the evolution of the lensing galaxy clusters and about the nature of dark matter.
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