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: Is the universe finite or infinite?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Dark matter is darker than once thought

12 hours ago

This panel of images represents a study of 72 colliding galaxy clusters conducted by a team of astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope. The research sets new limits on ...

Galaxy clusters collide—dark matter still a mystery

Mar 26, 2015

When galaxy clusters collide, their dark matters pass through each other, with very little interaction. Deepening the mystery, a study by scientists at EPFL and the University of Edinburgh challenges the ...

Hubble explores the mysteries of UGC 8201

Mar 19, 2015

The galaxy UGC 8201, captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, is a dwarf irregular galaxy, so called because of its small size and chaotic structure. It lies just under 15 million light-years ...

Hubble Source Catalog: One-stop shopping for astronomers

Mar 14, 2015

Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore, Maryland, have created a new master catalog of astronomical objects called the Hubble Source Catalog. ...

Cosmic bumps on cosmic ripples

Mar 13, 2015

In 1969, the astrophysicists Rashid Sunyaev and Yakov Zel'dovich realized that the then recently discovered cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) would be distorted by hot cosmic gas. Hot electrons ...

Cosmic dust discs withstand hellfire

Mar 10, 2015

A team of scientists led by astronomers at the University of Bonn discovered an unusual phenomenon in the centre of the Milky Way: They detected about 20 rotating dust and gas discs in each cluster hosting ...

Recommended for you

Is the universe finite or infinite?

Mar 27, 2015

Two possiblities exist: either the Universe is finite and has a size, or it's infinite and goes on forever. Both possibilities have mind-bending implications.

'Teapot' nova begins to wane

Mar 27, 2015

A star, or nova, has appeared in the constellation of Sagittarius and, even though it is now waning, it is still bright enough to be visible in the sky over Perth through binoculars or a telescope.

Dark matter is darker than once thought

Mar 27, 2015

This panel of images represents a study of 72 colliding galaxy clusters conducted by a team of astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope. The research sets new limits on ...

Galaxy clusters collide—dark matter still a mystery

Mar 26, 2015

When galaxy clusters collide, their dark matters pass through each other, with very little interaction. Deepening the mystery, a study by scientists at EPFL and the University of Edinburgh challenges the ...

Using 19th century technology to time travel to the stars

Mar 26, 2015

In the late 19th century, astronomers developed the technique of capturing telescopic images of stars and galaxies on glass photographic plates. This allowed them to study the night sky in detail. Over 500,000 ...

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

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.