How can an exploding star appear far brighter than expected? This question vexed astronomers since the discovery of PS1-10afx, supernova that was about 30 times more luminous than other Type 1A supernovas. Astronomers have just confirmed in Science that it was likely due to well-known illusion in space.
The mirage is called a gravitational lens that happens when a huge object in the foreground (like a galaxy) bends the light of an object in the background. Astronomers use this trick all the time to spy on galaxies and even to map dark matter, the mysterious substance believed to make up most of the universe.
Check out some spectacular images below of the phenomenon in action.
Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope (CFHT) image of the field before the supernova PS1-10afx. (Credit: Kavli IPMU / CFHT)
Dark matter in the Bullet Cluster. Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/ M.Markevitch et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/ D.Clowe et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.;
Hubble Space Telescope image shows Einstein ring of one of the SLACS gravitational lenses, with the lensed background galaxy enhanced in blue. A. Bolton (UH/IfA) for SLACS and NASA/ESA.
The image is made from HST data and shows the four lensed images of the dusty red quasar, connected by a gravitational arc of the quasar host galaxy. The lensing galaxy is seen in the centre, between the four lensed images. Credit: John McKean/HST Archive data
The HST WFPC2 image of gravitational lensing in the galaxy cluster Abell 2218, indicating the presence of large amount of dark matter (credit Andrew Fruchter at STScI).
A picture of the object J1000+0221, which demonstrates the most distant gravitational lens ever discovered. This Hubble picture shows a normal galaxy’s center region (the glow in the picture), but the object is also aligned with a younger, star-creating galaxy that is in behind. The object in the foreground pulls light from the background galaxy with gravity — making rings of pictures. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. van der Wel
By Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.