Gravitationally Lensed Supernovae are Another Way to Measure the Expansion of the Universe

Hubble Space Telescope image of a gravitational lens.
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies producing multiple images of a single distant supernova far behind it.

Supernova are a fascinating phenomenon and have taught us much about the evolution of stars. The upcoming Nancy Grace Roman telescope will be hunting the elusive combination of supernovae in a gravitational lens system. With its observing field 200 times that of Hubble it stands a much greater chance of success. If sufficient lensed supernovae are found then they could be used to determine the expansion rate of the Universe. 

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Civilizations Could Use Gravitational Lenses to Transmit Power From Star to Star

A new study shows how Solar Gravitational Lenses (SGLs) could be used to beam power from one system to another.. Credit: NASA/ESA

In 1916, famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a geometric theory for how gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. The revolutionary theory remains foundational to our models of how the Universe formed and evolved. One of the many things GR predicted was what is known as gravitational lenses, where objects with massive gravitational fields will distort and magnify light coming from more distant objects. Astronomers have used lenses to conduct deep-field observations and see farther into space.

In recent years, scientists like Claudio Maccone and Slava Turyshev have explored how using our Sun as a Solar Gravity Lens (SGL) could have tremendous applications for astronomy and the Search for Extratterstiral Intelligence (SETI). Two notable examples include studying exoplanets in extreme detail or creating an interstellar communication network (a “galactic internet”). In a recent paper, Turyshev proposes how advanced civilizations could use stellar gravitational lenses to transmit power from star to star – a possibility that could have significant implications in our search for technosignatures.

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A Huge New Gaia Data Release: More Stars, Gravitational Lenses and Asteroids

The ESA's Gaia observatory expanded its targets to include the tightly-packed center of Omega Centauri, an ancient globular cluster. Image Credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Acknowedgements: Michele Trabucchi, Nami Mowlavi and Thomas Lebzelter

The ESA’s Gaia mission is releasing a new tranche of astronomical data. The mission has released three regular, massive hauls of data since it launched in 2013, named Gaia DR1, DR2, and DR3. The ESA is calling this one a ‘focused product release,’ and while it’s smaller than the previous three releases, it’s still impactful.

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This JWST Image Shows Gravitational Lensing at its Finest

. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Rigby

One of the more intriguing aspects of the cosmos, which the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has allowed astronomers to explore, is the phenomenon known as gravitational lenses. As Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity describes, the curvature of spacetime is altered by the presence of massive objects and their gravity. This effect leads to objects in space (like galaxies or galaxy clusters) altering the path light travels from more distant objects (and amplifying it as well). By taking advantage of this with a technique known as Gravitational Lensing, astronomers can study distant objects in greater detail.

Consider the image above, the ESA’s picture of the month acquired by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The image shows a vast gravitational lens caused by SDSS J1226+2149, a galaxy cluster located roughly 6.3 billion light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices. The lens these galaxies created greatly amplified light from the more distant Cosmic Seahorse galaxy. Combined with Webb‘s incredible sensitivity, this technique allowed astronomers to study the Cosmic Seahorse in the hopes of learning more about star formation in early galaxies.

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A New Record! Hubble Detects an Individual Star From a Time When the Universe Was Less Than a Billion Years Old

Gravitationally lensed image of Earendel
The star nicknamed Earendel, indicated by the white arrow, is positioned along a ripple in spacetime toat gives the image extreme magnification. Credit: NASA / ESA / Brian Welch (JHU) / Dan Coe (STScI) / Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

A star that sounds as if it came from “The Lord of the Rings” now marks one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s farthest frontiers: The fuzzy point of light, known as Earendel, has been dated to a mere 900 million years after the Big Bang and appears to represent the farthest-out individual star seen to date.

Based on its redshift value of 6.2, Earendel’s light has taken 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, astronomers report in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. That distance mark outshines Hubble’s previous record-holder for a single star, which registered a redshift of 1.5 and is thought to have existed when the universe was 4 billion years old.

The newly reported record comes with caveats. First of all, we’re talking here about a single star rather than star clusters or galaxies. Hubble has seen agglomerations of stars that go back farther in time.

“Normally at these distances, entire galaxies look like small smudges, with the light from millions of stars blending together,” lead author Brian Welch, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, said today in a news release. “The galaxy hosting this star has been magnified and distorted by gravitational lensing into a long crescent that we named the Sunrise Arc.”

A close look at the arc turned up several bright spots, but the characteristics of the light coming from Earendel pointed to a high redshift, which translates into extreme distance. The higher the redshift, the faster the source of the light is receding from us in an ever-more-quickly expanding universe.

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If We Used the Sun as a Gravitational Lens Telescope, This is What a Planet at Proxima Centauri Would Look Like

mage of a simulated Earth, at 1024×1024 pixel resolution, at the distance of Proxima Centauri,at 1.3 pc, as projectedby the SGL to an image plane at 650 AU from the Sun. Credit: Toth H. & Turyshev, S.G.

As Einstein originally predicted with his General Theory of Relativity, gravity alters the curvature of spacetime. As a consequence, the passage of light changes as it encounters a gravitational field, which is how General Relativity was confirmed! For decades, astronomers have taken advantage of this to conduct Gravitational Lensing (GL) – where a distant source is focused and amplified by a massive object in the foreground.

In a recent study, two theoretical physicists argue that the Sun could be used in the same way to create a Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL). This powerful telescope, they argue, would provide enough light amplification to allow for Direct Imaging studies of nearby exoplanets. This could allow astronomers to determine if planets like Proxima b are potentially-habitable long before we send missions to study them.

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Advanced Civilizations Could be Communicating with Neutrino Beams. Transmitted by Clouds of Satellites Around Neutron Stars or Black Holes

One of the Daya Bay detectors. Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

In 1960, famed theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson made a radical proposal. In a paper titled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation” he suggested that advanced extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could be found by looking for signs of artificial structures so large, they encompassed entire star systems (aka. megastructures). Since then, many scientists have come up with their own ideas for possible megastructures.

Like Dyson’s proposed Sphere, these ideas were suggested as a way of giving scientists engaged in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) something to look for. Adding to this fascinating field, Dr. Albert Jackson of the Houston-based technology company Triton Systems recently released a study where he proposed how an advanced ETI could use rely on a neutron star or black hole to focus neutrino beams to create a beacon.

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Quasars with a Double-Image Gravitational Lens Could Help Finally Figure out how Fast the Universe is Expanding

A Hubble Space Telescope image of a doubly-imaged quasar. Image Credit: NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Tommaso Treu/UCLA, and Birrer et al
A Hubble Space Telescope image of a doubly-imaged quasar. Image Credit: NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Tommaso Treu/UCLA, and Birrer et al

How fast is the Universe expanding? That’s a question that astronomers haven’t been able to answer accurately. They have a name for the expansion rate of the Universe: The Hubble Constant, or Hubble’s Law. But measurements keep coming up with different values, and astronomers have been debating back and forth on this issue for decades.

The basic idea behind measuring the Hubble Constant is to look at distant light sources, usually a type of supernovae or variable stars referred to as ‘standard candles,’ and to measure the red-shift of their light. But no matter how astronomers do it, they can’t come up with an agreed upon value, only a range of values. A new study involving quasars and gravitational lensing might help settle the issue.

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Thanks to a Gravitational Lens, Astronomers Can See an Individual Star 9 Billion Light-Years Away

Hubble image of a luminous red galaxy (LRG) gravitationally distorting the light from a much more distant blue galaxy, a technique known as gravitational lensing. The shape of the galaxy doing the lensing created an almost circular image. An oblong galaxy would create more of an Einstein Ring effect. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Hubble image of a luminous red galaxy (LRG) gravitationally distorting the light from a much more distant blue galaxy, a technique known as gravitational lensing. The shape of the galaxy doing the lensing created an almost circular image. An oblong galaxy would create more of an Einstein Ring effect. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

When looking to study the most distant objects in the Universe, astronomers often rely on a technique known as Gravitational Lensing. Based on the principles of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this technique involves relying on a large distribution of matter (such as a galaxy cluster or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object, thereby making it appear brighter and larger.

This technique has allowed for the study of individual stars in distant galaxies. In a recent study, an international team of astronomers used a galaxy cluster to study the farthest individual star ever seen in the Universe. Although it normally to faint to observe, the presence of a foreground galaxy cluster allowed the team to study the star in order to test a theory about dark matter.

The study which describes their research recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Astronomy under the title “Extreme magnification of an individual star at redshift 1.5 by a galaxy-cluster lens“. The study was led by Patrick L. Kelly, an assistant professor the University of Minnesota, and included members from the Las Cumbres Observatory, the National Optical Astronomical Observatory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), and multiple universities and research institutions.

For the sake of their study, Prof. Kelly and his associates used the galaxy cluster known as MACS J1149+2223 as their lens. Located about 5 billion light-years from Earth, this galaxy cluster sits between the Solar System and the galaxy that contains Icarus. By combining Hubble’s resolution and sensitivity with the strength of this gravitational lens, the team was able to see and study Icarus, a blue giant.

Icarus, named after the Greek mythological figure who flew too close to the Sun, has had a rather interesting history. At a distance of roughly 9 billion light-years from Earth, the star appears to us as it did when the Universe was just 4.4 billion years old. In April of 2016, the star temporarily brightened to 2,000 times its normal luminosity thanks to the gravitational amplification of a star in MACS J1149+2223.

As Prof. Kelly explained in a recent UCLA press release, this temporarily allowed Icarus to become visible for the first time to astronomers:

“You can see individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions.”

Kelly and a team of astronomers had been using Hubble and MACS J1149+2223 to magnify and monitor a supernova in the distant spiral galaxy at the time when they spotted the new point of light not far away. Given the position of the new source, they determined that it should be much more highly magnified than the supernova. What’s more, previous studies of this galaxy had not shown the light source, indicating that it was being lensed.

Icarus, the farthest individual star ever seen, shown at left. Panels at right show the view in 2011, without Icarus visible, compared with the star’s brightening in 2016. Credit: NASA, ESA and Patrick Kelly/University of Minnesota

As Tommaso Treu, a professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College and a co-author of the study, indicated:

“The star is so compact that it acts as a pinhole and provides a very sharp beam of light. The beam shines through the foreground cluster of galaxies, acting as a cosmic magnifying glass… Finding more such events is very important to make progress in our understanding of the fundamental composition of the universe.

In this case, the star’s light provided a unique opportunity to test a theory about the invisible mass (aka. “dark matter”) that permeates the Universe. Basically, the team used the pinpoint light source provided by the background star to probe the intervening galaxy cluster and see if it contained huge numbers of primordial black holes, which are considered to be a potential candidate for dark matter.

These black holes are believed to have formed during the birth of the Universe and have masses tens of times larger than the Sun. However, the results of this test showed that light fluctuations from the background star, which had been monitored by Hubble for thirteen years, disfavor this theory. If dark matter were indeed made up of tiny black holes, the light coming from Icarus would have looked much different.

Since it was discovered in 2016 using the gravitational lensing method, Icarus has provided a new way for astronomers to observe and study individual stars in distant galaxies. In so doing, astronomers are able to get a rare and detailed look at individual stars in the early Universe and see how they (and not just galaxies and clusters) evolved over time.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is deployed in 2020, astronomers expect to get an even better look and learn so much more about this mysterious period in cosmic history.

Further Reading: UCLA

Gravitational Lensing Provides Rare Glimpse Into Interiors of Black Holes

The technique of gravitational lensing relies on the presence of a large cluster of matter between the observer and the object to magnify light coming from that object. Credit: NASA

The observable Universe is an extremely big place, measuring an estimated 91 billion light-years in diameter. As a result, astronomers are forced to rely on powerful instruments to see faraway objects. But even these are sometimes limited, and must be paired with a technique known as gravitational lensing. This involves relying on a large distribution of matter (a galaxy or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object.

Using this technique, an international team led by researchers from the California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech) Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) were able to observe jets of hot gas spewing from a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy (known as PKS 1413 + 135). The discovery provided the best view to date of the types of hot gas that are often detected coming from the centers of supermassive black holes (SMBH).

The research findings were described in two studies that were published in the August 15th issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Both were led by Harish Vedantham, a Caltech Millikan Postdoctoral Scholar, and were part of an international project led by Anthony Readhead – the Robinson Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus, and director of the OVRO.

The Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) – located near Bishop, California – is one of the largest university-operated radio observatories in the world. Credit:

This OVRO project has been active since 2008, conducting twice-weekly observations of some 1,800 active SMBHs and their respective galaxies using its 40-meter telescope. These observations have been conducted in support of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has be conducting similar studies of these galaxies and their SMBHs during the same period.

As the team indicated in their two studies, these observations have provided new insight into the clumps of matter that are periodically ejected from supermassive black holes, as well as opening up new possibilities for gravitational lensing research. As Dr. Vedantham indicated in a recent Caltech press statement:

“We have known about the existence of these clumps of material streaming along black hole jets, and that they move close to the speed of light, but not much is known about their internal structure or how they are launched. With lensing systems like this one, we can see the clumps closer to the central engine of the black hole and in much more detail than before.”

While all large galaxies are believed to have an SMBH at the center of their galaxy, not all have jets of hot gas accompanying them. The presence of such jets are associated with what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), a compact region at the center of a galaxy that is especially bright in many wavelengths – including radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray radiation.

Illustration showing the likely configuration of a gravitational lensing system discovered by OVRO. Credit: Anthony Readhead/Caltech/MOJAVE

These jets are the result of material that is being pulled towards an SMBH, some of which ends up being ejected in the form of hot gas. Material in these streams travels at close to the speed of light, and the streams are active for periods ranging from 1 to 10 million years. Whereas most of the time, the jets are relatively consistent, every few years, they spit out additional clumps of hot matter.

Back in 2010, the OVRO researchers noticed that PKS 1413 + 135’s radio emissions had brightened, faded and then brightened again over the course of a year. In 2015, they noticed the same behavior and conducted a detailed analysis. After ruling out other possible explanations, they concluded that the overall brightening was likely caused by two high-speed clumps of material being ejected from the black hole.

These clumps traveled along the jet and became magnified when they passed behind the gravitational lens they were using for their observations. This discovery was quite fortuitous, and was the result of many years of astronomical study. As Timothy Pearson, a senior research scientist at Caltech and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“It has taken observations of a huge number of galaxies to find this one object with the symmetrical dips in brightness that point to the presence of a gravitational lens. We are now looking hard at all our other data to try to find similar objects that can give a magnified view of galactic nuclei.”

Artist’s representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

What was also exciting about the international team’s observations was the nature of the “lens” they used. In the past, scientists have relied on massive lenses (i.e. entire galaxies) or micro lenses that consisted of single stars. However, the team led by Dr. Vedantham and Dr. Readhead relied on an what they describe as a “milli-lens” of about 10,000 solar masses.

This could be the first study in history that relied on an intermediate-sized lens, which they believe is most likely a star cluster. One of the advantages of a milli-sized lens is that it is not large enough to block out the entire source of light, making it easier to spot smaller objects. With this new gravitational lensing system, it is estimated that astronomers will be able to observe clumps at scales about 100 times smaller than before. As Readhead explained:

“The clumps we’re seeing are very close to the central black hole and are tiny – only a few light-days across. We think these tiny components moving at close to the speed of light are being magnified by a gravitational lens in the foreground spiral galaxy. This provides exquisite resolution of a millionth of a second of arc, which is equivalent to viewing a grain of salt on the moon from Earth.”

What’s more, the researchers indicate that the lens itself is of scientific interest, for the simple reason that not much is known about objects in this mass range. This potential star cluster could therefore act as a sort of laboratory, giving researchers a chance to study gravitational milli-lensing while also providing a clear view of the nuclear jets streaming from active galactic nuclei.

Image of the 40-meter telescope of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), located near Bishop, California. Credit: Anthony Readhead/Caltech

Looking ahead, the team hopes to confirm the results of their studies using another technique known as Very-Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). This will involve radio telescopes from around the world taking detailed images of PKS 1413 + 135 and the SMBH at its center. Given what they have observed so far, it is likely that this SMBH will spit out another clump of matter in a few years time (by 2020).

Vedantham, Readhead and their colleagues plan to be ready for this event. Spotting this next clump would not only validate their recent studies, it would also validate the milli-lens technique they used to conduct their observations. As Readhead indicated, “We couldn’t do studies like these without a university observatory like the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, where we have the time to dedicate a large telescope exclusively to a single program.”

The studies were made possible thanks to funding provided by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, the Academia Sinica, the Academy of Finland, and the Chilean Centro de Excelencia en Astrofísica y Tecnologías Afines (CATA).

Further Reading: Caltech, The Astrophysical Journal, The Astrophysical Journal (2)