Hundreds of New Gravitational Lenses Discovered to Help Study the Distant Universe

These two columns show side-by-side comparisons of gravitational lens candidates imaged by the ground-based Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey (color) and the Hubble Space Telescope (black and white). (Credit: Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey, Hubble Space Telescope)

General relativity tells us that everything, even light, is affected by the mass of an object. When a beam of light passes near a large mass, its path is deflected. This shift in the direction of light is known as gravitational lensing, and it was one of the first confirmed effects of Einstein’s theory.

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How Do You Weigh The Universe?

The weight of the universe (technically the mass of the universe) is a difficult thing to measure. To do it you need to count not just stars and galaxies, but dark matter, diffuse clouds of dust and even wisps of neutral hydrogen in intergalactic space. Astronomers have tried to weigh the universe for more than a century, and they are still finding ways to be more accurate.

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WFIRST Will Use Relativity to Find More Exoplanets!

In 2025, NASA’s next-generation telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will take to space and join in the search for extrasolar planets. Between its 2.4-meter (8 ft) telescope, 18 detectors, 300-megapixel camera, and the extraordinary survey speed it will offer, the WFIRST will be able to scan areas of the sky a hundred times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Beyond its high-sensitivity and advanced suite of instruments, WFIRST will also rely on a technique known as Gravitational Microlensing to search for and characterize exoplanets. This is essentially a small-scale version of the gravitational lensing technique, where the gravitational force of a massive object between the observer and the target is used to focus and magnify the light coming from a distant source.

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Hubble Finds Teeny Tiny Clumps of Dark Matter

To put it simply, Dark Matter is not only believed to make up the bulk of the Universe’s mass but also acts as the scaffolding on which galaxies are built. But to find evidence of this mysterious, invisible mass, scientists are forced to rely on indirect methods similar to the ones used to study black holes. Essentially, they measure how the presence of Dark Matter affects stars and galaxies in its vicinity.

To date, astronomers have managed to find evidence of dark matter clumps around medium and large galaxies. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and a new observing technique, a team of astronomers from UCLA and NASA JPL found that dark matter can form much smaller clumps than previously thought. These findings were presented this week at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

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Planetary Mass Objects Discovered in Other Galaxies

In this artist's conception, a rogue planet drifts through space. Credit: Christine Pulliam (CfA)

A team of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have discovered “planetary mass bodies” outside of the Milky Way. They were discovered in one gravitationally-lensed galaxy, and in one gravitationally-lensed galaxy cluster using a technique called quasar micro-lensing. According to the researchers, the planetary mass objects are either planets or primordial black holes.

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

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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Now We Know That Dark Matter Isn’t Primordial Black Holes

For over fifty years, scientists have theorized that roughly 85% of matter in the Universe’s is made up of a mysterious, invisible mass. Since then, multiple observation campaigns have indirectly witnessed the effects that this “Dark Matter” has on the Universe. Unfortunately, all attempts to detect it so far have failed, leading scientists to propose some very interesting theories about its nature.

One such theory was offered by the late and great Stephen Hawking, who proposed that the majority of dark matter may actually be primordial black holes (PBH) smaller than a tenth of a millimeter in diameter. But after putting this theory through its most rigorous test to date, an international team of scientists led from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) has confirmed that it is not.

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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

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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Dark Matter Isn’t Made From Black Holes

In February of 2016, scientists working for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) made history when they announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves. Since that time, multiple detections have taken place and scientific collaborations between observatories  – like Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo – are allowing for unprecedented levels of sensitivity and data sharing.

This event not only confirmed a century-old prediction made by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, it also led to a revolution in astronomy. It also stoked the hopes of some scientists who believed that black holes could account for the Universe’s “missing mass”. Unfortunately, a new study by a team of UC Berkeley physicists has shown that black holes are not the long-sought-after source of Dark Matter.

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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. 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