Lenses galore -- Hubble finds large sample of very distant galaxies

Jul 24, 2008
The picture shows Abell 2218, a rich galaxy cluster composed of thousands of individual galaxies. It sits about 2.1 billion light-years from the Earth (redshift 0.17) in the northern constellation of Draco. When used by astronomers as a powerful gravitational lens to magnify distant galaxies, the cluster allows them to peer far into the Universe. However, it not only magnifies the images of hidden galaxies, but also distorts them into long, thin arcs. Several arcs in the image can be studied in detail thanks to Hubble's sharp vision. Multiple distorted images of the same galaxies can be identified by comparing the shape of the galaxies and their color. In addition to the giant arcs, many smaller arclets have been identified. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Johan Richard (Caltech, USA) Acknowledgement: Davide de Martin & James Long (ESA/Hubble)

By using the gravitational magnification from six massive lensing galaxy clusters, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has provided scientists with the largest sample of very distant galaxies seen to date. Some of the newly found magnified objects are dimmer than the faintest ones seen in the legendary Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which is usually considered the deepest image of the Universe.

By combining both visible and near-infrared observations from Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), scientists searched for galaxies that are only visible in near-infrared light. They uncovered 10 candidates believed to lie about 13 billion light-years away (a redshift of approximately 7.5), which means that the light gathered was emitted by the stars when the Universe was still very young — a mere 700 million years old.

"These candidates could well explain one of the big puzzles plaguing astronomy today. We know that the Universe was reionised within the first 5-600 million years after the Big Bang, but we don't know if the ionising energy came from a smaller number of big galaxies or a more plentiful population of tiny ones", said Johan Richard, from the California Institute of Technology. The relatively high number of redshift 7.5 galaxies claimed in this survey suggests that most of the ionising energy was produced by dim and abundant galaxies rather than large, scarce ones.

"The challenge for astronomers is that galaxies beyond a distance of 13 billion light-years (past a redshift of 7) are exceedingly faint and are only visible in the near-infrared — just at the limit of what Hubble can observe" explained Jean-Paul Kneib from the Laboratoire d'astrophysique de Marseille. This new result was only made possible with some cosmic assistance in the form of gravitational lensing that magnified the light from the distant galaxies enough for Hubble to detect them. A firm confirmation of their distance was beyond even the capabilities of the 10-meter Keck telescope and must await powerful future ground-based telescopes.

First confirmed in 1979, gravitational lenses were predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity, a theory that allows astronomers to calculate the path of starlight as it moves through curved space-time. According to the theory, the bending of light is brought about by the presence of matter in the Universe, which causes the fabric of space-time to warp and curve.

Gravitational lensing is the result of this warping of spacetime and is mainly detected around very massive galaxy clusters. Due to the gravitational effect of both the cluster's observable matter and hidden dark matter, the light is bent around the cluster. This bending of light allows the clusters in certain places to act as natural gravitational telescopes that give the light of faint and faraway objects a boost.

Where Earth-bound telescopes fail to detect such faint and distant objects due to the blurring introduced by the Earth's atmosphere, a combination of Hubble's location in space and the magnification of the gravitation lenses provides astronomers with a birds-eye view of these elusive objects.

This technique has already been used numerous times by Hubble and has helped astronomers to find and study many of the most distant known galaxies.

Source: Hubble Information Centre

Explore further: Mysterious molecules in space

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Hubble sees a galaxy with a glowing heart

Jul 14, 2014

(Phys.org) —This view, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, shows a nearby spiral galaxy known as NGC 1433. At about 32 million light-years from Earth, it is a type of very active galaxy known ...

Recommended for you

Evidence of a local hot bubble carved by a supernova

11 minutes ago

I spent this past weekend backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park, where although the snow-swept peaks and the dangerously close wildlife were staggering, the night sky stood in triumph. Without a fire, ...

Astronomers measure weight of galaxies, expansion of universe

8 hours ago

Astronomers at the University of British Columbia have collaborated with international researchers to calculate the precise mass of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, dispelling the notion that the two galaxies have similar ...

Mysterious molecules in space

19 hours ago

Over the vast, empty reaches of interstellar space, countless small molecules tumble quietly though the cold vacuum. Forged in the fusion furnaces of ancient stars and ejected into space when those stars ...

Comet Jacques makes a 'questionable' appearance

Jul 28, 2014

What an awesome photo! Italian amateur astronomer Rolando Ligustri nailed it earlier today using a remote telescope in New Mexico and wide-field 4-inch (106 mm) refractor. Currently the brightest comet in ...

Image: Our flocculent neighbour, the spiral galaxy M33

Jul 28, 2014

The spiral galaxy M33, also known as the Triangulum Galaxy, is one of our closest cosmic neighbours, just three million light-years away. Home to some forty billion stars, it is the third largest in the ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

yyz
2 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2008
These gravitational lenses may prove a boon to astrophysicists studying the distribution of Dark Matter and shed light on the physical makeup of very distant galaxies which would be impossible if not for the fact they are gravitationally lensed.
TimESimmons
1 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2008
So....
How could re-ionisation occur at all when deep space is so cold?
What made galaxies form so quickly after the big bang?
What causes the extra gravity that drives lensing?

http://www.presto...ndex.htm