Sinister ‘Space Invaders’ galaxy found; can we trust our eyes?

March 05, 2013 | 3:56 p.m.
space invader closeup Sinister Space Invaders galaxy found; can we trust our eyes?

A close up of the "Space Invaders" galaxy. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage / ESA-Hubble Collaboration)

space invader Sinister Space Invaders galaxy found; can we trust our eyes?

In this photo, the image of a spiral galaxy at upper left has been stretched and mirrored into a shape similar to that of a simulated alien from the classic 1970s arcade game "Space Invaders." (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage/ESA-Hubble Collaboration)

space invader annotated Sinister Space Invaders galaxy found; can we trust our eyes?

1 and 2: This galaxy is visible twice, because its light has followed two separate paths around an elliptical galaxy before reaching us. The image marked 2 is heavily distorted into what looks like the shape of a simulated alien from the 1970s video game "Space Invaders." (NASA and ESA)

“Space Invaders” fans, NASA and ESA have a gift for you: On Tuesday the agencies released images taken by the Hubble telescope of a galaxy that looks like one of the evil little aliens in the classic arcade game.

The likeness is uncanny: wide, oblong head, small little legs spread wide, symmetrical crab-like body. This galaxy looks like it could have been pulled directly from the lineup of invaders in the late-’70s game created by Tomohiro Nishikado.

The video game gained new popularity in 1980, when it was released for the Atari 2600. The first game to be officially licensed from its arcade version, “Space Invaders” was an unqualified success, becoming the first title to sell more than a million copies and providing a huge boost to sales of the console. It also became the cultural shorthand for all video games.

Unfortunately, this image is kind of a trick. It was created when the Hubble telescope was using a gravitational lens to enhance its viewing power.

Gravitational lenses occur naturally in space where a cluster of galaxies and dark matter create a gravitational force so strong that it actually bends space as if it were a rubber membrane, Ray Villard, a spokesman for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, told Hero Complex.

Astronomers often point Hubble directly at these rippled areas of space because they can enhance and brighten light from distant galaxies that are otherwise impossible for Hubble to see.  However, the gravitational lens often distorts those distant galaxies as well.

Here, the Hubble was using Abell 68, a massive cluster of galaxies 2 billion light years away, to magnify light coming from galaxies even farther away.

“In the case of our little alien, it looks like the galaxy has been mirrored so the left and right side is symmetrical,” said Villard, “and as soon as you do that it is easy to make aliens.”

If you click through the photos above, you will see where the galaxy lies in the context of its neighboring galaxies, as well as a more accurate, if less alien, image of what this galaxy likely looks like.

— Deborah Netburn


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