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.
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.
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.
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 twostudies 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.
As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.
One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.
These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.
The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.
Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.
Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.
Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.
This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.
As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.
Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.
But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.
With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.
This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.
If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.
But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.
Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.
We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?
And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.
Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.
But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.
And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.
The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.
In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.
LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.
A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.
A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.
Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.
The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.
There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.
And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.
Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
One of the things I love about astronomy is how it’s rapidly changing and evolving over time. Every day there are new discoveries, and advancements in theories that take us incrementally forward in our understanding of the Universe.
One of the best examples of this is dark matter; mysterious and invisible but a significant part of the Universe and accounting for the vast majority of mass out there.
It was first theorized almost 100 years ago when astronomers surveyed the total mass of distant galaxy clusters and found that the visible mass we can see must be just a fraction of the total material in the clusters. When you add up the stars and gas, galaxies move and rotate in ways that indicate there’s a huge halo of invisible matter surrounding it.
Some of the best evidence came from Vera Rubin and Kent Ford in the 60s and 70s, when they measured the rotational velocity of edge-on spiral galaxies. They estimated that there must be about 6 times as much dark matter as regular matter.
Dark matter became a serious mystery in astronomy, and many observers and theorists have spent the last half century trying to work out what it is.
And dark matter hasn’t given up its secrets easily. Originally, astronomers thought it might not actually be invisible mass, but a misunderstanding of how gravity works at the largest scales.
But over the last few decades, techniques have been developed, using the gravity of dark matter itself to measure how it bends light from more distant objects. Astronomers don’t know what dark matter is, but they’re able to use it as a telescope. Now that’s impressive.
They’ve found amazing features in the dark matter web out there, vast walls and filaments defining the largest scale structures in the Universe. Clusters where dark matter and its gas have been separated from each other.
Remember, we are at the cutting edge of this mystery, and you’re watching it unfold in real time. 25 years from now, I’m sure we’ll look back at our quaint attempts to understand dark matter.
One of the most interesting questions I have right now is: could there be dark matter galaxies? Completely invisible to our eyes, but able to interact through gravity?
Of course, in times like this, I like to bring in a ringer. Someone who has dedicated their life to the study of these questions.
And today, I’ve got with my Sarah Pearson, a graduate student in astronomy at Columbia University and the host of “Space with Sarah”. Sarah studies the formation and interactions of dwarf galaxies surrounding the Milky Way to understand how galaxies built up at the earliest times in the Universe and form the large galaxies we see at present day.
Fraser: Sarah, welcome to the Guide to Space.
Sarah: Hi Fraser, thanks.
Fraser: Can you talk a little bit about how astronomers map out the distribution of dark matter in the Universe?
Sarah: Yes, definitely. So that is a hard question, as you just explained, we don’t see the dark matter. But one assumption about the Universe we live in is that the light matter or baryonic matter. For example, what you, me and stars consist of, and also galaxies, kind of trace out where the dark matter is located.
So one assumption is that the light matter follows the dark matter. In that way we can actually map out to huge distances, kind of how galaxies and clusters of galaxies are located in our Universe. And we imagine that the dark matter structure is somewhat similar.
And also recently, very large scale structure simulations of our own Universe have addressed this by kind of starting out with an almost uniform distribution of dark matter in the very early Universe. And what they see is when they let the Universe evolve in time, for example, when the Universe is expanding, you kind of have these dark matter clumps forming into galaxies in all these filaments that you discussed.
You can kind of trace out the location of dark matter by understanding the expansion of space versus gravity that creates the galaxies that we see.
Fraser: And I know in the observations that you see these different distributions of matter and dark matter, it’s not the perfect 1:6 radio that I just mentioned before. You actually see clumping of dark matter that’s sometimes separated from regular matter. So can you actually have whole galaxies that are entirely made of dark matter?
Sarah: Yes, that’s one of the topics I’m super excited about. I work on some of these dark matter only galaxies, and the way you can think about it is that the dark matter is almost uniformly distributed in the early Universe. But some of it is slightly denser than other parts, which collapses down into galaxies. And a lot of those galaxies will actually be a lot smaller than the Milky Way. And because they’re so small, they have a hard time actually holding onto the matter within them.
We think that when star formation turned on in these galaxies, you might actually blow out a lot of the gas that might create more stars, but you won’t blow out the dark matter. That means you could end up with these small tiny galaxies that only have dark matter. They might have some gas, but they’re very hard for us astronomers to find.
Fraser: Well, if they are dark matter, and the dark matter is invisible, how do we find them?
Sarah: Oh, great question. So for example, around our own galaxy Milky Way, it’s hypothesized in our current paradigm of cosmology and the way we think about the Universe, there should actually be thousands of dark matter clumps, these dark matter galaxies, kind of orbiting our own galaxy.
Some of these might be destroyed when they pass through the huge Milky Way disk, that’s one way of destroying them. The smaller ones might be destroyed just by the tides as they orbit around the galaxy. However, we imagine that some of them might survive. Actually they can plough through what we call stellar streams, which are formed when a real galaxy falls into our own Milky Way and tidally stretched out. You should be able to see these density signatures in the stellar stream, and that might indicate what type of dark matter halo that ploughed through them.
Fraser: You hinted at a way that they could form. You’ve got these stars as they’re early forming and blasting themselves apart and the clump of dark matter can’t hold onto them, so that part is gone. Is that the main way these might form, are there other ways you can get these dark galaxies?
Sarah: A different hypothesis is if you have an AGN, an active galactic nuclei within a galaxy from a black hole, you could actually that way blow out a lot of the gas from a galaxy as well. But it’s still not really clear to us astronomers what type of galaxies and if small galaxies would have these active galactic nuclei.
So the best theory right now is that some of them might have attracted a lot of gas initially because they didn’t have a lot of gravity to pull in the gas. But also, because this gas is completely lost. Also from stars exploding, actually, not just from stars turning on initially.
Fraser: And I know that astronomers and physicists are trying to search for dark matter in the Large Hadron Collider, and try to see if they can understand the underlying particle. Does the search that you’re working on give us any sense of that underlying nature of dark matter?
Sarah: Yeah, also a great question, because for example if dark matter is cold. The cold dark matter paradigm is very popular right now. Which states that dark matter might be a very massive weakly interacting particle. When we’re saying warm or cold dark matter, we’re also referring to how fast it’s moving. And depending on what kind of particle dark matter is, that kind of sets the structure for of the early Universe.
So we can start to count, if we have cold dark matter, we would expect to see a certain amount of these cold dark galaxies, where that amount would be different, if we had warm dark matter.
Fraser: That’s really cool, so the observations that you do give the physicists a better idea of what they should be looking for in their particle accelerators, and the two sides can work together. That’s really great.
Okay Sarah, place your bets. What do you think is the most likely candidate for dark matter?
Sarah: I still think this is a hard question, and I’m not sure if the particle physicists yet think we’re helping them. We’re still approaching things from different sides, but we’ll see.
I still think it’s going to be one of those weakly interactive massive particles that we just haven’t detected yet.
Fraser: Thank you so much for joining me on the Guide to Space Sarah, I really appreciate you explaining these dark matter galaxies to us.
Well there you have it. Dark matter is strange, strange stuff. We still don’t know what it is, but we can see how it moves, interacts with matter through its gravity. And we can see how it can form entire galaxies of just dark matter.
A big thanks to Sarah Pearson. If you haven’t already, go and check out her YouTube channel: Space with Sarah. She’s covering big topics, like wondering when the Sun will shut off, how big the Universe is, and how galaxies can collide in an expanding Universe.
How can an exploding star appear far brighter than expected? This question vexed astronomers since the discovery of PS1-10afx, supernova that was about 30 times more luminous than other Type 1A supernovas. Astronomers have just confirmed in Science that it was likely due to well-known illusion in space.
The mirage is called a gravitational lens that happens when a huge object in the foreground (like a galaxy) bends the light of an object in the background. Astronomers use this trick all the time to spy on galaxies and even to map dark matter, the mysterious substance believed to make up most of the universe.
Check out some spectacular images below of the phenomenon in action.