Understanding something we can’t see has been a problem that astronomers have overcome in the past. Now, a group of scientists believe a new technique will meet the challenge of helping to solve one of the biggest mysteries in cosmology today: understanding the nature of dark energy. Using the strong gravitational lensing method — where a massive galaxy cluster acts as a cosmic magnifying lens — an international team of astronomers have been able to study elusive dark energy for the first time. The team reports that when combined with existing techniques, their results significantly improve current measurements of the mass and energy content of the universe.
Using data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope as well as ground-based telescopes, the team analyzed images of 34 extremely distant galaxies situated behind Abell 1689, one of the biggest and most massive known galaxy clusters in the universe.
Through the gravitational lens of Abell 1689, the astronomers, led by Eric Jullo from JPL and Priyamvada Natarajan from Yale University, were able to detect the faint, distant background galaxies—whose light was bent and projected by the cluster’s massive gravitational pull—in a similar way that the lens of a magnifying lens distorts an object’s image.
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Using this method, they were able to reduce the overall error in its equation-of-state parameter by 30 percent, when combined with other methods.
The way in which the images were distorted gave the astronomers clues as to the geometry of the space that lies between the Earth, the cluster and the distant galaxies. “The content, geometry and fate of the universe are linked, so if you can constrain two of those things, you learn something about the third,” Natarajan said.
The team was able to narrow the range of current estimates about dark energy’s effect on the universe, denoted by the value w, by 30 percent. The team combined their new technique with other methods, including using supernovae, X-ray galaxy clusters and data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) spacecraft, to constrain the value for w.
“Dark energy is characterized by the relationship between its pressure and its density: this is known as its equation of state,” said Jullo. “Our goal was to try to quantify this relationship. It teaches us about the properties of dark energy and how it has affected the development of the Universe.”
Dark energy makes up about 72 percent of all the mass and energy in the universe and will ultimately determine its fate. The new results confirm previous findings that the nature of dark energy likely corresponds to a flat universe. In this scenario, the expansion of the universe will continue to accelerate and the universe will expand forever.
The astronomers say the real strength of this new result is that it devises a totally new way to extract information about the elusive dark energy, and it offers great promise for future applications.
According to the scientists, their method required multiple, meticulous steps to develop. They spent several years developing specialized mathematical models and precise maps of the matter — both dark and “normal” — that together constitute the Abell 1689 cluster.
The findings appear in the August 20 issue of the journal Science.