Gravitational Lensing is Helping to Nail Down Dark Matter

Using the gravitational lensing technique, a team was able to examine how light from distant quasar was affected by intervening small clumps of dark matter. Credit: NASA/ESA/D. Player (STScI)

According to the most widely-accepted cosmological model, the majority of the mass in our Universe (roughly 85%) consists of “Dark Matter.” This elusive, invisible mass is theorized to interact with “normal” (or “visible”) matter through gravity alone and not electromagnetic fields, neither absorbing nor emitting light (hence the name “dark”). The search for this matter is ongoing, with candidate particles including Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) or ultralight bosons (axions), which are at opposite extremes of the mass scale and behave very differently (in theory).

This matter’s existence is essential for our predominant theories of gravity (General Relativity) and particle physics (The Standard Model) to make sense. Otherwise, we may need to radically rethink our theories on how gravity behaves on the largest of scales (aka. Modified Gravity). However, according to new research led by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the study of “Einstein Rings” could bring us a step closer to understanding Dark Matter. According to their paper, the way Dark Matter alters the curvature of spacetime leaves signatures that suggest it could be made up of axions!

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Astronomers Think They've Found One of the Biggest Black Holes Ever Seen

Artist's impression of an ultramassive black hole (UBH). Credit: ESA/Hubble/DSS/Nick Risinger/N. Bartmann

In 1931, Indian-American physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar proposed a resolution to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity that postulated the existence of black holes. By 1972, astronomers obtained the first conclusive evidence that these objects existed in our Universe. Observations of quasars and the center of the Milky Way also revealed that most massive galaxies have supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at their cores. Since then, the study of black holes has revealed that these objects vary in size and mass, ranging from micro black holes (MBHs) and intermediate black holes (IMBHs) to SMBHs.

Using astronomical simulations and a technique known as Gravitational Lensing, an international team of astrophysicists detected what could be the largest black hole ever observed. This ultramassive black hole (UMBH) has a mass roughly 30 billion times that of our Sun and is located near the center of the Abell 1201 galaxy cluster, roughly 2.7 billion light-years from Earth. This is the first time a black hole has been found using Gravitational Lensing, and it could enable studies that look farther into space to find black holes and deepen our understanding of their size and scale.

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A Rogue Earth and Neptune Might Have Been Found in Older Data

An artist's illustration of a rogue planet, dark and mysterious. Image Credit: NASA

Scientists have found what appear to be rogue planets hidden in old survey data. Their results are starting to define the poorly-understood rogue planet population. In the near future, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will conduct a search for more free-floating planets, and the team of researchers developed some methods that will aid that search.

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A Novel Propulsion System Would Hurl Hypervelocity Pellets at a Spacecraft to Speed it up

Graphic depiction of Pellet-Beam Propulsion for Breakthrough Space Exploration. Credits: Artur Davoyan

Today, multiple space agencies are investigating cutting-edge propulsion ideas that will allow for rapid transits to other bodies in the Solar System. These include NASA’s Nuclear-Thermal or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NTP/NEP) concepts that could enable transit times to Mars in 100 days (or even 45) and a nuclear-powered Chinese spacecraft that could explore Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. While these and other ideas could allow for interplanetary exploration, getting beyond the Solar System presents some major challenges.

As we explored in a previous article, it would take spacecraft using conventional propulsion anywhere from 19,000 to 81,000 years to reach even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri (4.25 light-years from Earth). To this end, engineers have been researching proposals for uncrewed spacecraft that rely on beams of directed energy (lasers) to accelerate light sails to a fraction of the speed of light. A new idea proposed by researchers from UCLA envisions a twist on the beam-sail idea: a pellet-beam concept that could accelerate a 1-ton spacecraft to the edge of the Solar System in less than 20 years.

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In a New Hubble Image, Dark Matter Anchors the Giant Galaxy Cluster Abell 611

abell 611 and its galaxies and dark matter
Hubble Space Telescope offers a cosmic cobweb of galaxies and invisible dark matter in the cluster Abell 611. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, P. Kelly, M. Postman, J. Richard, S. Allen

Dark matter. It’s secret. It’s dark because it doesn’t give off any light. We can’t see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, or even feel it. But, astronomers can measure this dark secret of the universe. How? By looking at galaxies and galaxy clusters. Dark matter exerts a gravitational influence on those regions, and that CAN be measured.

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Webb and Hubble Work Together to Reveal This Spectacular Galaxy Pair — and Several Bonuses!

By combining data from the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, this image of galaxy pair VV 191 includes near-infrared light from Webb, and ultraviolet and visible light from Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Rogier Windhorst (ASU), William Keel (University of Alabama), Stuart Wyithe (University of Melbourne), JWST PEARLS Team, Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

What’s better than a pair of galaxies observed by a pair of iconic space telescopes? The answer to that, according to researchers using the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes, is finding even more galaxies and other remarkable details no one expected in the duo’s observations.

“Galaxies in the foreground, background, deep background, and into the depths,” said astronomer William Keel from Galaxy Zoo, on Twitter.

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A Computer Algorithm is 88% Accurate in Finding Gravitational Lenses

Pictures of gravitational lenses from the AGEL survey. Credit: ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3-Dimensions (ASTRO3D) and the University of NSW (UNSW).

Astronomers have been assessing a new machine learning algorithm to determine how reliable it is for finding gravitational lenses hidden in images from all sky surveys. This type of AI was used to find about 5,000 potential gravitational lenses, which needed to be confirmed. Using spectroscopy for confirmation, the international team has now determined the technique has a whopping 88% success rate, which means this new tool could be used to find thousands more of these magical quirks of physics.

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Gravity Really Tangled up the Light From a Distant Quasar

quasar lensed
The SDSS J1004+4112 gravitational lens creates five images of a distant quasar. Credit: European Space Agency, NASA, Keren Sharon (Tel-Aviv University) and Eran Ofek (CalTech))

Way back in 1979, astronomers spotted two nearly identical quasars that seemed close to each other in the sky. These so-called “Twin Quasars” are actually separate images of the same object. Even more intriguing: the light paths that created each image traveled through different parts of the cluster. One path took a little longer than the other. That meant a flicker in one image of the quasar occurred 14 months later in the other. The reason? The cluster’s mass distribution formed a lens that distorted the light and drastically affected the two paths.

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Hubble Sees a Mirror Image of the Same Galaxy Thanks to Gravitational Lensing

Gravitational lensing and SGAS J143845+145407

It’s been an amazing couple of weeks for fans of gravitational lensing. JWST grabbed the headlines with a spectacular infrared view of lensing in the SMACS 0723 image, and that had everybody talking. Yet, seeing gravitationally lensed objects is not new. Some can be seen from the ground, and of course, Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been cranking out views of gravitational lensing for years.

Just a few days ago, HST released another one. It’s a striking view of a distant galaxy called SGAS J143845+145407. It’s the centerpiece of the HST view and appears twice in a mirror image of itself. The galaxy appears a third time, as a very smeared apparition that makes a “bridge” between the other two images.

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A Mission to Reach the Solar Gravitational Lens in 30 Years

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is famous for supporting outlandish ideas in the astronomy and space exploration fields. Since being re-established in 2011, the institute has supported a wide variety of projects as part of its three-phase program. However, so far, only three projects have gone on to receive Phase III funding. And one of those just released a white paper describing a mission to get a telescope that could effectively see biosignatures on nearby exoplanets by utilizing the gravitational lens of our own Sun.

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