Sometimes there’s a chance alignment — faraway in the universe, where objects are separated by unimaginable distances measured in billions of light-years — when a galaxy cluster in the foreground intersects light from an even more distant object. The conjunction plays visual tricks, where the galaxy cluster acts like a lens, appearing to magnify and bend the distant light.
The rare cosmic alignment can bring the distant universe into view. Now, astronomers have stumbled upon a surprise: they’ve detected the most distant cosmic magnifying glass yet.
Seen above as it looked 9.6 billion years ago, this monster elliptical galaxy breaks the previous record holder by 200 million light-years. It’s bending, distorting and magnifying the distant spiral galaxy, whose light has taken 10.7 billion years to reach Earth.
“When you look more than 9 billion years ago in the early universe, you don’t expect to find this type of galaxy-galaxy lensing at all,” said lead researcher Kim-Vy Tran from Texas A&M University in a Hubble press release.
“Imagine holding a magnifying glass close to you and then moving it much farther away. When you look through a magnifying glass held at arm’s length, the chances that you will see an enlarged object are high. But if you move the magnifying glass across the room, your chances of seeing the magnifying glass nearly perfectly aligned with another object beyond it diminishes.”
The team was studying star formation in data collected by the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawai’i, when they came across a strong detection of hot hydrogen gas that appeared to arise form a massive, bright elliptical galaxy. It struck the team as odd. Hot hydrogen is a clear sign of star birth, but it was detected in a galaxy that looked far too old to be forming new stars.
“I was very surprised and worried,” Tran recalled. “I thought we had made a major mistake with our observations.”
So Tran dug through archived Hubble images, which revealed a smeared, blue object next to the larger elliptical. It was the clear signature of a gravitational lens.
“We discovered that light from the lensing galaxy and from the background galaxy were blended in the ground-based data, which was confusing us,” said coauthor Ivelina Momcheva of Yale University. “The Keck spectroscopic data hinted that something interesting was going on here, but only with Hubble’s high-resolution spectroscopy were we able to separate the lensing galaxy from the more distant background galaxy and determine that the two were at different distances. The Hubble data also revealed the telltale look of the system, with the foreground lens in the middle, flanked by a bright arc on one side and a faint smudge on the other — both distorted images of the background galaxy. We needed the combination of imaging and spectroscopy to solve the puzzle.”
By gauging the intensity of the background galaxy’s light, the team was able to measure the giant galaxy’s total mass. All in all it weighs 180 billion times more than our Sun. Although this may seem big, it actually weighs four times less than the Milky Way galaxy.
“There are hundreds of lens galaxies that we know about, but almost all of them are relatively nearby, in cosmic terms,” said lead author Kenneth Wong from the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics. “To find a lens as far away as this one is a very special discovery because we can learn about the dark-matter content of galaxies in the distant past. By comparing our analysis of this lens galaxy to the more nearby lenses, we can start to understand how that dark-matter content has evolved over time.”
Interestingly, the lensing galaxy is underweight in terms of its dark-matter content. In the past, astronomers have assumed that dark matter and normal matter build up equally in a galaxy over time. But this galaxy, suggests this is not the case.
The team’s results appeared in the July 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.