Asteroid Photobomb! Space Rocks Invade Hubble Galaxy View

Interloping asteroids snuck into a stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of a distant galaxy cluster, painting S-trails across the foreground of a truly cosmic view.

The Hubble telescope was looking at Abell 370 – a complex of several hundred galaxies linked together by gravity and located 4 billion light-years away — when seven faint asteroids (five of which had never been seen before) moved across the field of view.

Multiple Hubble exposures are typically combined into one image, so the asteroids appear in 20 separate sightings. The space rocks were, on average, about 160 million miles (260 million kilometers) from Earth — nearly five times farther away than Mars at its closest point. (The nearest distance between Earth and Mars is 33.9 million miles, or 54.6 million kilometers.) [The Most Amazing Hubble Telescope Discoveries]

"The asteroid trails look curved due to an observational effect called parallax. As Hubble orbits around Earth, an asteroid will appear to move along an arc with respect to the vastly more distant background stars and galaxies," read a statement from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which manages Hubble observations.

Photobombing asteroids paint S-trails across the galaxy cluster Abell 370 in this amazing composite image from the Hubble Space Telescope. Seven asteroids created 20 trails in this view when they crossed Hubble's field of view during multiple exposures of the galaxy cluster. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI)

"This parallax effect is somewhat similar to the effect you see from a moving car, in which trees by the side of the road appear to be passing by much more rapidly than background objects at much larger distances," STScI officials explained in the same statement. "The motion of Earth around the sun, and the motion of the asteroids along their orbits, are other contributing factors to the apparent skewing of asteroid paths."

Each asteroid was found manually by "blinking" images (quickly moving between different images of the same field of view) to look for asteroid motion. The arcs of the asteroid motions are distinct from separate arcs of blue light, which represent distorted images of galaxies that are behind the cluster. (The light from these galaxies is bent by dark matter, scientists said.)

Asteroid trails are visible in this view from the Hubble Space Telescope taken from the Frontier Fields survey, which contains thousands of galaxies. While there are 20 asteroid trails, only seven are unique objects; the remainder are repeats caused by multiple exposures. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and B. Sunnquist and J. Mack (STScI))

"This picture was assembled from images taken in visible and infrared light," STScI officials added in the statement. "The field's position on the sky is near the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system. This is the zone in which most asteroids reside, which is why Hubble astronomers saw so many crossings. Hubble deep-sky observations taken along a line-of-sight near the plane of our solar system commonly record asteroid trails."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: