Using Gravitational Lensing to Measure Age and Size of Universe

Article written: 2 Mar , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Handy little tool, this gravitational lensing! Astronomers have used it to measure the shape of stars, look for exoplanets, and measure dark matter in distant galaxies. Now its being used to measure the size and age of the Universe. Researchers say this new use of gravitation lensing provides a very precise way to measure how rapidly the universe is expanding. The measurement determines a value for the Hubble constant, which indicates the size of the universe, and confirms the age of Universe as 13.75 billion years old, within 170 million years. The results also confirm the strength of dark energy, responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Gravitational lensing occurs when two galaxies happen to aligned with one another along our line of sight in the sky. The gravitational field of the nearer galaxy distorts the image of the more distant galaxy into multiple arc-shaped images. Sometimes this effect even creates a complete ring, known as an “Einstein Ring.”
Researchers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) used gravitational lensing to measure the distances light traveled from a bright, active galaxy to the earth along different paths. By understanding the time it took to travel along each path and the effective speeds involved, researchers could infer not just how far away the galaxy lies but also the overall scale of the universe and some details of its expansion.

Distinguishing distances in space is difficult. A bright light far away and a dimmer source lying much closer can look like they are at the same distance. A gravitational lens circumvents this problem by providing multiple clues as to the distance light travels. That extra information allows them to determine the size of the universe, often expressed by astrophysicists in terms of a quantity called Hubble’s constant.

“We’ve known for a long time that lensing is capable of making a physical measurement of Hubble’s constant,” KIPAC’s Phil Marshall said. However, gravitational lensing had never before been used in such a precise way. This measurement provides an equally precise measurement of Hubble’s constant as long-established tools such as observation of supernovae and the cosmic microwave background. “Gravitational lensing has come of age as a competitive tool in the astrophysicist’s toolkit,” Marshall said.

When a large nearby object, such as a galaxy, blocks a distant object, such as another galaxy, the light can detour around the blockage. But instead of taking a single path, light can bend around the object in one of two, or four different routes, thus doubling or quadrupling the amount of information scientists receive. As the brightness of the background galaxy nucleus fluctuates, physicists can measure the ebb and flow of light from the four distinct paths, such as in the B1608+656 system that was the subject of this study. Lead author on the study Sherry Suyu, from the University of Bonn, said, “In our case, there were four copies of the source, which appear as a ring of light around the gravitational lens.”

Though researchers do not know when light left its source, they can still compare arrival times. Marshall likens it to four cars taking four different routes between places on opposite sides of a large city, such as Stanford University to Lick Observatory, through or around San Jose. And like automobiles facing traffic snarls, light can encounter delays, too.

“The traffic density in a big city is like the mass density in a lens galaxy,” Marshall said. “If you take a longer route, it need not lead to a longer delay time. Sometimes the shorter distance is actually slower.”

The gravitational lens equations account for all the variables such as distance and density, and provide a better idea of when light left the background galaxy and how far it traveled.

In the past, this method of distance estimation was plagued by errors, but physicists now believe it is comparable with other measurement methods. With this technique, the researchers have come up with a more accurate lensing-based value for Hubble’s constant, and a better estimation of the uncertainty in that constant. By both reducing and understanding the size of error in calculations, they can achieve better estimations on the structure of the lens and the size of the universe.

There are several factors scientists still need to account for in determining distances with lenses. For example, dust in the lens can skew the results. The Hubble Space Telescope has infra-red filters useful for eliminating dust effects. The images also contain information about the number of galaxies lying around the line of vision; these contribute to the lensing effect at a level that needs to be taken into account.

Marshall says several groups are working on extending this research, both by finding new systems and further examining known lenses. Researchers are already aware of more than twenty other astronomical systems suitable for analysis with gravitational lensing.

These results of this study was published in the March 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The researchers used data collected by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and showed the improved precision they provide in combination with the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP).

Source: SLAC

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13 Responses

  1. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    I am trying to think of how this might work with respect to measuring the expansion of the universe. The space might be thought of as an expanding rubber sheet and the photons as ants crawling along different paths from some source to Earth. These different paths are induced by the intervening gravity of a galaxy which provides the lens. Then these ants will have different arrival times which carry information about how the rubber sheet is expanding.

    I will have to think a bit about this, and a source on the physics would be good to have.


  2. Jon Hanford says

    A fascinating paper on this spectacular system is available here: (w-annotated illustrations).

    Just an incredible astrophysical object 🙂

  3. Uncle Fred says

    What boggles my mind is the idea that there is a limit to the observable universe. This implies that objects beyond this limit are retreating away from us faster than their light can reach us (they aren’t actually moving faster, just that space is expanding faster).

    So does this mean….

    We don’t see the sky as one gigantically blazing light (the combined light of all the objects in the universe) because of this expansion? When we stare up at the blackness of the sky (assuming the absence of meteorological phenomenon or dust) we are essentially staring up into a simulated big black hole because of this expansion?

    Am I making any sense?



  4. Uncle Fred says

    … Come to think of it – and just to add to my comment about the blindingly bright sky notion if the universe was not expanding – Don’t we owe our very existence to this expansion? Correct me if I was wrong about the brilliant sky notion, but wouldn’t we be cooked/vaporized by all this radiation if the universe was not expanding.

    I hope I am not way off the mark here, just my musings.

  5. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    @ Uncle Fred:

    a simulated big black hole […] Am I making any sense?

    I believe it makes eminently sense in the way that I believe cosmologists have thought about the connections. Apparently if you know how to draw them spacetime graphs, there are similarities.

    But in the end, we can tell the difference, and we don’t inhabit a singularity.

    Correct me if I was wrong about the brilliant sky notion, but wouldn’t we be cooked/vaporized by all this radiation if the universe was not expanding.

    No, that is correct – it is called “Olbers’ paradox”, which is a misnomer – Wikipedia puts down the first who conceived something similar as Thomas Digges, but I believe the idea or more exactly gedanken experiment may be older than that.

    An expanding universe predicts a lot of things that we would have a hard time to live without – a flat universe (so old and equitable enough to live in) and 2LOT – 2nd law of thermodynamics (so there can be complex things like us) for example. And lots more.

    I’m speculating here, but perhaps also time (as in spacetime) and decoherence (as in quantum mechanics, allowing for classical states) depend in some global sense on the expansion, the first is given a unique direction and the later needs (as entropy in 2LOT) a large enough environment to interact with.

  6. Lawrence B. Crowell says


    The blackness of the sky is due to the red shifting galaxies and matter further out away from us. It is similar to looking at a black hole, in fact more similar to looking out from the inside of a black hole. However, there is no spacelike singularity we are headed towards — which is good. Rather we are in a time direction leaving a singularity, that singularity is what we might call the big bang, or the quantum fluctuation which brought about the universe.


  7. Jon Hanford says

    Speaking of strong lensing, the first strongly-lensing quasar has been found! Details at: . The authors state that this is just the beginning in the search for strong lensing QSOs.

  8. Uncle Fred says

    Thanks for sharing the cosmological mechanics OM and LC.

  9. Hannes says

    Gravitational lensing, or just dust which at great distance is acting like a magnifying glas?

    This might be only an effect of spherical aberration.

    Think of the Red Rectangle Nebula, when looked upon sideways there is a perfect double concave “lens”.

    Don’t rule out dust.

  10. Excalibur says

    I have never heard of cosmic dust having any other optical qualities than absorbtion (and reemittance) and reflection. The low density would make the refractive index so close to unity that I dont expect it to be detectable.

    Gravitational lensing however is expected to have about the refractive index needed to explain what is actually observed, given the uncertainties in the underlying masses.

  11. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    This is not an optical effect of dust. That would just create a smearing effect.


  12. IVAN3MAN says

    Somehow, I had missed this post until now, but better late than never…

    At the first paragraph, in the second line:

    Now its being…

    That should be it’s (it is), not “its”.

    Also, at the last paragraph:

    These results of this study was published…

    That should be written: “[The] results of this study was published…”; alternatively, “These [study results were] published…”

    Um… I’ll now get my coat and see myself out…

  13. IVAN3MAN says


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