An ALMA image of the gravitationally lensed galaxy SDP.81. The bright orange central region of the ring (ALMA's highest-resolution observation ever) reveals the glowing dust in this distant galaxy. The surrounding lower-resolution portions of the ring trace the millimeter wavelength light emitted by carbon monoxide. (ALMA via NRAO/ESO/NAOJ/B. Saxton/NRAO/AUI/NSF)

The galaxy you (sort of) see above is 12 billion light years away. But thanks to gravitational lensing -- a magnification that occurs when a massive galaxy bends the light of a smaller, less visible one behind it -- the ancient, distant galaxy called SDP.81  is in our sights.

[The Hubble found a galaxy so huge, it acts like a magnifying glass]

Sometimes gravitational lenses give us distorted but recognizable galaxies to gaze upon. In this case, we're seeing what's known as an Einstein Ring. This rare form of lensing (so named because Einstein predicted it in his theory of general relativity) happens when the light from the two galaxies (the magnifier and the magnified) line up perfectly and form a circle.

Another recent ring took the appearance of a smiley face:


In the center of this image, taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is the galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 — and it seems to be smiling. (NASA & ESA, acknowledgement to Judy Schmidt)

The new one looks familiar, too, though it's a little less welcoming:


The images were taken using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as part of the telescope's Long Baseline Campaign. Astronomers are working on testing the upper limits of the radio telescope's resolution. By placing the antennas of the array as far apart as they can go (just over nine miles), researchers took the highest-resolution image ever captured by the array:


ALMA's highest-resolution image ever reveals the dust glowing inside the distant galaxy SDP.81. The ring structure was created by a gravitational lens that distorted the view of the distant galaxy into a ring-like structure. (ALMA via NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

This image was taken with a resolution of 23 milliarcseconds. According to a statement from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, that's like seeing the rim of a basketball hoop on top of the Eiffel Tower while you're standing on the Empire State Building's observation deck. That's the kind of resolution we can look forward to from ALMA as it sets its sights on the rest of the universe.

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