An Artificial Intelligence Just Found 56 New Gravitational Lenses

Gravitational lenses are an important tool for astronomers seeking to study the most distant objects in the Universe. This technique involves using a massive cluster of matter (usually a galaxy or cluster) between a distant light source and an observer to better see light coming from that source. In an effect that was predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, this allows astronomers to see objects that might otherwise be obscured.

Recently, a group of European astronomers developed a method for finding gravitational lenses in enormous piles of data. Using the same artificial intelligence algorithms that Google, Facebook and Tesla have used for their purposes, they were able to find 56 new gravitational lensing candidates from a massive astronomical survey. This method could eliminate the need for astronomers to conduct visual inspections of astronomical images.

The study which describes their research, titled “Finding strong gravitational lenses in the Kilo Degree Survey with Convolutional Neural Networks“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Carlo Enrico Petrillo of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, the team also included members of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), the Argelander-Institute for Astronomy (AIfA) and the University of Naples.

The notable gravitational lens known as the Cosmic Horseshoe is found in Leo. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

While useful to astronomers, gravitational lenses are a pain to find. Ordinarily, this would consist of astronomers sorting through thousands of images snapped by telescopes and observatories. While academic institutions are able to rely on amateur astronomers and citizen astronomers like never before, there is imply no way to keep up with millions of images that are being regularly captured by instruments around the world.

To address this, Dr. Petrillo and his colleagues turned to what are known as “Convulutional Neural Networks” (CNN), a type of machine-learning algorithm that mines data for specific patterns. While Google used these same neural networks to win a match of Go against the world champion, Facebook uses them to recognize things in images posted on its site, and Tesla has been using them to develop self-driving cars.

As Petrillo explained in a recent press article from the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy:

“This is the first time a convolutional neural network has been used to find peculiar objects in an astronomical survey. I think it will become the norm since future astronomical surveys will produce an enormous quantity of data which will be necessary to inspect. We don’t have enough astronomers to cope with this.”

The team then applied these neural networks to data derived from the Kilo-Degree Survey (KiDS). This project relies on the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile to map 1500 square degrees of the southern night sky. This data set consisted of 21,789 color images collected by the VST’s OmegaCAM, a multiband instrument developed by a consortium of European scientist in conjunction with the ESO.

A sample of the handmade photos of gravitational lenses that the astronomers used to train their neural network. Credit: Enrico Petrillo/Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

These images all contained examples of Luminous Red Galaxies (LRGs), three of which wee known to be gravitational lenses. Initially, the neural network found 761 gravitational lens candidates within this sample. After inspecting these candidates visually, the team was able to narrow the list down to 56 lenses. These still need to be confirmed by space telescopes in the future, but the results were quite positive.

As they indicate in their study, such a neural network, when applied to larger data sets, could reveal hundreds or even thousands of new lenses:

“A conservative estimate based on our results shows that with our proposed method it should be possible to find ?100 massive LRG-galaxy lenses at z ~> 0.4 in KiDS when completed. In the most optimistic scenario this number can grow considerably (to maximally ? 2400 lenses), when widening the colour-magnitude selection and training the CNN to recognize smaller image-separation lens systems.”

In addition, the neural network rediscovered two of the known lenses in the data set, but missed the third one. However, this was due to the fact that this lens was particularly small and the neural network was not trained to detect lenses of this size. In the future, the researchers hope to correct for this by training their neural network to notice smaller lenses and rejects false positives.

But of course, the ultimate goal here is to remove the need for visual inspection entirely. In so doing, astronomers would be freed up from having to do grunt work, and could dedicate more time towards the process of discovery. In much the same way, machine learning algorithms could be used to search through astronomical data for signals of gravitational waves and exoplanets.

Much like how other industries are seeking to make sense out of terabytes of consumer or other types of “big data”, the field astrophysics and cosmology could come to rely on artificial intelligence to find the patterns in a Universe of raw data. And the payoff is likely to be nothing less than an accelerated process of discovery.

Further Reading: Netherlands Research School for Astronomy , MNRAS


Construction Begins on the Next Super Telescope

This artist’s rendering shows the Extremely Large Telescope in operation on Cerro Armazones in northern Chile. The telescope is shown using lasers to create artificial stars high in the atmosphere. Image: ESO/E-ELT

The construction of the world’s largest telescope has begun. At a ceremony at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile, officials gathered to celebrate the first stone of the European Extremely Large Telescope’s (E-ELT) long-awaited construction. Sophisticated telescope projects like the E-ELT take many years, so we can expect another similar ceremony sometime in 2021, when the E-ELT will see first light.

The E-ELT is the ESO’s flagship observatory. It’s primary mirror will be a 39.3 meter (129 ft.) monstrosity that will observe in the visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared spectra. The construction of the site began in 2014, but this ceremony marks the beginning of the construction of the main telescope and its dome. The ceremony also marks the connection of the telescope to the electricity grid.

The Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, attended the ceremony. She was welcomed by the Director General of ESO Tim de Zeeuw, by ELT Programme Manager Roberto Tamai, and by other officials from the ESO. Staff from the La Silla Paranal Observatory, and numerous engineers and technicians—as well as numerous representatives from Chilean government and industry—also attended the ceremony.

“With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here.” – President of the Republic of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria

In her speech, the President spoke in favor of the E-ELT, and in support of science and cooperation. “With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here: it is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation.”

At the ceremony, a time capsule from ESO was sealed into place. The capsule is a hexagon shaped, one-fifth scale model of the E-ELT containing a poster made of photographs of current ESO staff, and a copy of the book detailing the E-ELT’s science goals.

The first stone ceremony is definitely an important milestone for this Super Telescope, but it’s just one of the milestones reached by the E-ELT in the past two weeks.

The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast. At 4.2 meters in diameter, it is the largest secondary mirror ever used on an an optical telescope. Image: ESO/Schott.
The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast. At 4.2 meters in diameter, it is the largest secondary mirror ever used on an an optical telescope. Image: ESO/Schott.

The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast, and the ESO has announced that the contracts for the primary mirror have now been signed. The primary mirror segment blanks, all 798 of them, will be made by the Germany company SCHOTT. Once produced, they will be polished by the French company Safran Reosc. Safran Reosc will also mount and test the mirror segments.

“This has been an extraordinary two weeks!” – Tim de Zeeuw, European Southern Observatory’s Director General

Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s Director General, is clearly excited about the progress being made on the E-ELT. At the contract signing, de Zeeuw said, “This has been an extraordinary two weeks! We saw the casting of the ELT’s secondary mirror and then, last Friday, we were privileged to have the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, attend the first stone ceremony of the ELT. And now two world-leading European companies are starting work on the telescope’s enormous main mirror, perhaps the biggest challenge of all.”

This artist's rendering shows the huge segmented primary mirror of the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Contracts for the manufacture of the mirror segments were signed on 30 May 2017. Image: ESO/L. Calcada
This artist’s rendering shows the huge segmented primary mirror of the ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). Contracts for the manufacture of the mirror segments were signed on 30 May 2017. Image: ESO/L. Calcada

It’s taken an enormous amount of work to get to the construction stage of the world’s largest telescope. Scientist’s, engineers, and technicians have been working for years to get this far. But without the contribution of Chile, none of it would happen. Chile is the world’s astronomy capital, and they continue working with the ESO and other nations to drive scientific discovery forward.

The E-ELT has three broad-based science objectives. It will:

  • Probe Earth-like exoplanets for signs of life
  • Study the nature of dark energy and dark matter
  • Observe the Universe’s early stages to understand our origins and the origin of galaxies and solar systems

Along the way, it will no doubt raise new questions that we can’t even imagine yet.

Further Reading:

Enjoy The Biggest Infrared Image Ever Taken Of The Small Magellanic Cloud Without All That Pesky Dust In The Way

The Small Magellanic Cloud is one of the highlights of the southern sky. It can be seen with the naked eye. But it is obscured by clouds of interstellar gas and dust, which makes it hard for optical telescopes to get a good look at it. This image, taken with the ESO's VISTA. is the biggest-ever image of the SMC, and shows millions of stars. Credit: ESO/VISTA VMC

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) galaxy. Credit: ESA/VISTA
The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) galaxy. Credit: ESA/VISTA

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the Milky Way’s nearest companions (along with the Large Magellanic Cloud.) It’s visible with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere. A new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) has peered through the clouds that obscure it and given us our biggest image ever of the dwarf galaxy.

The SMC contains several hundred million stars, is about 7,000 light years in diameter, and is about 200,000 light years away. It’s one of the most distant objects that we can see with the naked eye, and can only be seen from the southern hemisphere (and the lowest latitudes of the northern hemisphere.)

The Small Magellanic Cloud is located in the Tucana constellation (The Toucan) in the southern hemisphere. The SMC is shown in green outline around the word 'Tucana'. Also shown are NGC 104 and NGC 362, unrelated objects that are much closer to Earth. Image: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope
The Small Magellanic Cloud is located in the Tucana constellation (The Toucan) in the southern hemisphere. The SMC is shown in green outline around the word ‘Tucana’. Also shown are NGC 104 and NGC 362, unrelated objects that are much closer to Earth. Image: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

The SMC is a great target for studying how stars form because it’s so close to Earth, relatively speaking. But the problem is, its detail is obscured by clouds of interstellar gas and dust. So an optical survey of the Cloud is difficult.

But the ESO’s VISTA instrument is ideal for the task. VISTA is a near-infrared telescope, and infrared light is not blocked by the dust. VISTA was built at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory, in the Atacama Desert in Chile where it enjoys fantastic observing conditions. VISTA was designed to perform several surveys, including the Vista Magellanic Survey.

Explore the Zoomable image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. (You won’t be disappointed.)

The VISTA Magellanic Survey is focused on 3 main objectives:

  • The study of stellar populations in the Magellanic Clouds
  • The history of star formation in the Magellanic Clouds
  • The three-dimensional structure of the Magellanic Clouds

An international team led by Stefano Rubele of the University of Padova has studied this image, and their work has produced some surprising results. VISTA has shown us that most of the stars in this image are much younger than stars in other neighbouring galaxies. It’s also shown us that the SMC’s morphology is that of a warped disc. These are only early results, and there’s much more work to be done analyzing the VISTA image.

VISTA inside its enclosure at Paranal. VISTA has a 4.1 meter mirror, and its job is to survey large sections of the sky at once. In the background is the ESO's Very Large Telescope. Image: G. Hüdepohl
VISTA inside its enclosure at Paranal. VISTA has a 4.1 meter mirror, and its job is to survey large sections of the sky at once. In the background is the ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Image: G. Hüdepohl (

The team presented their research in a paper titled “The VMC survey – XIV. First results on the look-back time star formation rate tomography of the Small Magellanic Cloud“, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

As the authors say in their paper, the SMC is a great target for study because of its “rich population of star clusters, associations, stellar pulsators, primary distance indicators, and stars in shortlived evolutionary stages.” In a way, we’re fortunate to have the SMC so close. But studying the SMC was difficult, until the VISTA came online with its infrared capabilities.

VISTA saw first light on December 11th, 2009. It’s time is devoted to systematic surveys of the sky. In its first five years, it has undertaken large surveys of the entire southern sky, and also studied small patches of the sky to discern extremely faint objects. The leading image in this article is from the Vista Magellanic Survey, a survey covering 184 square degrees of the sky, taking in both the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud, and their environment.

Source: VISTA Peeks Through the Small Magellanic Cloud’s Dusty Veil

Hubble Watches Spinning Black Hole Swallow a Star

In 2015, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (aka. ASAS-SN, or Assassin) detected something rather brilliant in a distant galaxy. At the time, it was thought that the event (named ASASSN-15lh) was a superluminous supernova – an extremely bright explosion caused by a massive star reaching the end of its lifepsan. This event was thought to be brightest supernova ever witnessed, being twice as bright as the previous record-holder.

But new observations provided by an international team of astronomers have provided an alternative explanation that is even more exciting. Relying on data from several observatories – including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope – they have proposed that the source was a star being ripped apart by a rapidly spinning black hole, an event which is even more rare than a superluminous supernova.

According to the ASAS-SN’s findings – which were published in January of 2016 in Science – the superluminous light source appeared in a galaxy roughly 4 billion light-years from Earth. The luminous source was twice as bright as the brightest superluminous supernova observed to date, and its peak luminosity was 20 times brighter than the total light output of the entire Milky Way.

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser
This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesse

What seemed odd about it was the fact that the superluminous event appeared within a massive, red (i.e. “quiescent”) galaxy, where star formation has largely ceased. This was in contrast to most super-luminous supernovae that have been observed in the past, which are typically located in blue, star-forming dwarf galaxies. In addition, the star (which is Sun-like in size) is not nearly massive enough to become an extreme supernova.

As such, the international team of astronomers – led by Giorgos Leloudas of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Dark Cosmology Center in Denmark – conducted follow-up observations using space-based and Earth-based observatories. These included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory and the New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory.

With information from these facilities, they arrived at a much different conclusion. As Dr. Leloudas explained in a Hubble press release:

“We observed the source for 10 months following the event and have concluded that the explanation is unlikely to lie with an extraordinary bright supernova. Our results indicate that the event was probably caused by a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole as it destroyed a low-mass star.”

The process is colloquially known as “spaghettification”, where an object is ripped apart by the extreme tidal forces of a black hole. In this case, the team postulated that the star drifted too close to the supermassive black hole (SMBH) at the center of the distant galaxy. The resulting heat and the shocks created by colliding debris led to a massive burst of light – which was mistakenly believed to be a very bright supernova.

Multiple lines of evidence support this theory. As they explain in their paper, this included the fact that over the ten-months that they observed it, the star went through three distinct spectroscopic phases. This included a period of substanial re-brightening, where the star emitted a burst of UV light that accorded with a sudden increase in its temperature.

Combined with the unlikely location and the mass of the star, this all pointed towards tidal disruption rather than a massive supernova event. But as Dr. Leloudas admits, they cannot be certain of this just yet. “Even with all the collected data we cannot say with 100% certainty that the ASASSN-15lh event was a tidal disruption event.” he said. “But it is by far the most likely explanation.”

As always, additional observations are necessary before anyone can say for sure what caused this record-breaking luminous event. But in the meantime, the mere fact that something so rare was witnessed should be enough to cause some serious excitement! Speaking of which, be sure to check out the simulation videos (above and below) to see what such an event would look like:

Further Reading: Hubble Space Telescope

VLTI Detects Exozodiacal Light Around Exoplanets

If you’ve ever stood outside after twilight has passed, or a few hours before the sun rises at dawn,  then chances are you’ve witnessed the phenomenon known as zodiacal light. This effect, which looks like a faint, diffuse white glow in the night sky, is what happens when sunlight is reflected off of tiny particles and appears to extend up from the vicinity of the Sun. This reflected light is not just observed from Earth but can be observed from everywhere in the Solar System.

Using the full power of the Very Large Telescopic Interferometer (VLTI), an international team of astronomers recently discovered that the exozodiacal light – i.e., zodiacal light around other star systems – close to the habitable zones around nine nearby stars was far more extreme. The presence of such large amounts of dust in the inner regions around some stars may pose an obstacle to the direct imaging of Earth-like planets.

The reason for this is simple: even at low levels, exozodiacal dust causes light to become amplified intensely. For example, the light detected in this survey was roughly 1000 times brighter than the zodiacal light seen around the Sun. While this exozodiacal light had been previously detected, this is the first large systematic study of this phenomenon around nearby stars.

The team used the VLTI visitor instrument PIONIER which is able to interferometrically connect all four Auxiliary Telescopes or all four Unit Telescopes of the VLTI at the Paranal Observatory. This led to not only extremely high resolution of the targets but also allowed for a high observing efficiency.

The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing it's adaptive optics laser.  Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl
The Very Large Telescoping Interferometer firing its adaptive optics laser.
Credit: ESO/G. Hüdepohl

In total, the team observed exozodiacal light from hot dust close to the habitable zones of 92 nearby stars and combined the new data with their earlier observations.

In contrast to these earlier observations – which were made with the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) array at Georgia State University – the team did not observe dust that will later form into planets, but dust created in collisions between small planets of a few kilometers in size – objects called planetesimals that are similar to the asteroids and comets of the Solar System. Dust of this kind is also the origin of the zodiacal light in the Solar System.

As a by-product, these observations have also led to the discovery of new, unexpected stellar companions orbiting around some of the most massive stars in the sample. “These new companions suggest that we should revise our current understanding of how many of this type of star are actually double,” says Lindsay Marion, lead author of an additional paper dedicated to this complementary work using the same data.

“If we want to study the evolution of Earth-like planets close to the habitable zone, we need to observe the zodiacal dust in this region around other stars,” said Steve Ertel, lead author of the paper, from ESO and the University of Grenoble in France. “Detecting and characterizing this kind of dust around other stars is a way to study the architecture and evolution of planetary systems.”

A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory.
A portrait of the HR8799 planetary system as imaged by the Hale Telescope.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory.

However, the good news is that the number of stars containing zodiacal light at the level of our Solar System is most likely much higher than the numbers found in the survey.

“The high detection rate found at this bright level suggests that there must be a significant number of systems containing fainter dust, undetectable in our survey, but still much brighter than the Solar System’s zodiacal dust,” explains Olivier Absil, co-author of the paper, from the University of Liège. “The presence of such dust in so many systems could therefore become an obstacle for future observations, which aim to make direct images of Earth-like exoplanets.”

Therefore, these observations are only a first step towards more detailed studies of exozodiacal light, and need not dampen our spirits about discovering more Earth-like exoplanets in the near future.

Further Reading: ESO