Herschel's hidden talent: digging up magnified galaxies

Nov 04, 2010
This image composite shows a warped and magnified view of a galaxy discovered by the Herschel Space Observatory, one of five such galaxies uncovered by the infrared telescope. Image credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Keck/SMA

(PhysOrg.com) -- It turns out the Herschel Space Observatory has a trick up its sleeve. The telescope, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions, has proven to be excellent at finding magnified, faraway galaxies. Like little kids probing patches of dirt for insects, astronomers can use these new cosmic magnifying lenses to study galaxies that are hidden in dust.

"I was surprised to learn that is so good at finding these cosmic lenses," said Asantha Cooray of the University of California, Irvine. "Locating new lenses is an arduous task that involves slogging through tons of data. With Herschel, we can find a lot of them much more efficiently." Cooray is a co-author of a paper about the discovery, appearing in the Nov. 5 issue of the journal Science. The lead author is Mattia Negrello of the Open University in the United Kingdom.

A cosmic magnifying lens occurs when a or cluster of bends light from a more into a warped and magnified image. Sometimes, a galaxy is so warped that it appears as a ring -- an object known as an Einstein ring after who first predicted the phenomenon, referred to as gravitational lensing. The effect is similar to what happens when you look through the bottom of a soda bottle or into a funhouse mirror.

These lenses are incredibly powerful tools for studying the properties of distant galaxies as well as the mysterious stuff -- dark matter and dark energy -- that makes up a whopping 96 percent of our universe.

"With these lenses, we can do cosmology and study galaxies that are too distant and faint to be seen otherwise," said Cooray.

Cooray and a host of international researchers made the initial discovery using Herschel. Launched in May 2009, this space mission is designed to see longer-wavelength light than that we see with our eyes -- light in the far-infrared and submillimeter portion of the . Scanning Herschel images of thousands of galaxies, the researchers noticed five never-before-seen objects that jumped out as exceptionally bright.

At that time, the galaxies were suspected of being magnified by cosmic lenses, but careful and extensive follow-up observations were required. Numerous ground-based telescopes around the world participated in the campaign, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and three telescopes in Hawaii: the W.M. Keck Observatory, the California Institute of Technology's Submillimeter Observatory, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Submillimeter Array.

This diagram illustrates a cosmic phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, in which a galaxy magnifies a second, more distant galaxy, making it appear brighter and easier to study. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The results showed that all five of the bright galaxies were indeed being magnified by foreground galaxies. The galaxies are really far away -- they are being viewed at a time when the universe was only two to four billion years old, less than a third of its current age.

The Herschel astronomers suspect that they are just scratching the surface of a much larger population of magnified galaxies to be uncovered. The images studied so far make up just two percent of the entire planned survey, a program called the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey, or Herschel-ATLAS.

"The fact that this Herschel team saw five lensed galaxies is very exciting," said Paul Goldsmith, the U.S. project scientist for Herschel at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "This means that we can probably pick out hundreds of new lensed galaxies in the Herschel data."

The five galaxies are young and bursting with dusty, new stars. The dust is so thick, the galaxies cannot be seen at all with visible-light telescopes. Herschel can see the faint warmth of the dust, however, because it glows at far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths. Because the galaxies are being magnified, astronomers can now dig deeper into these dusty, exotic places and learn more about what makes them tick.

Explore further: Millisecond pulsars clearly demonstrate that pulsars are neutron stars

More information: www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel/index.html

Related Stories

Cool spacedust survey goes into orbit

Feb 01, 2008

University of Nottingham astronomers will be studying icy cosmic dust millions of light years away — using the biggest space telescope ever built.

Herschel reveals details of distant galaxies and quasars

Jul 01, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Amazing new data captured by ESA's (European Space Agency) Herschel Space Observatory - carrying the largest mirror ever launched into space - have just been publicly released, allowing the ...

Herschel spacecraft assembly complete

Apr 23, 2008

The mirror of the Herschel telescope has now been assembled with the payload and service module, completing the spacecraft structure - an important milestone in the days following through to launch.

Recommended for you

How small can galaxies be?

Sep 29, 2014

Yesterday I talked about just how small a star can be, so today let's explore just how small a galaxy can be. Our Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, and contains about 200 billion stars. Th ...

The coolest stars

Sep 29, 2014

One way that stars are categorized is by temperature. Since the temperature of a star can determine its visual color, this category scheme is known as spectral type. The main categories of spectral type are ...

Simulations reveal an unusual death for ancient stars

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —Certain primordial stars—those 55,000 and 56,000 times the mass of our Sun, or solar masses—may have died unusually. In death, these objects—among the Universe's first-generation of stars—would ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

omatumr
1 / 5 (3) Nov 05, 2010
It is great to learn that the Herschel Space Observatory may be able to find "faraway galaxies."

Can we stick with observational astronomy and leave "the mysterious stuff - dark matter and dark energy -" for fairy tales and science fiction?

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
barakn
5 / 5 (2) Nov 06, 2010
Can we stick with observational astronomy and leave "the mysterious stuff - dark matter and dark energy -" for fairy tales and science fiction?

If we do that, then we'll also have to dispose of the neutron repulsion fairy tale.