A Hubble image of a quadruple gravitational lens. The gravity of the galaxy at the center has re-directed the light of a background galaxy into four images; located above, below, left, and right-of-center. This distribution of lensed images is called an “Einstein Cross.” Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI
Oct 5, 2015
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Gravity is the familiar force of nature responsible for the diverse motions of a baseball thrown high into the air, a planet orbiting a star, or a star orbiting within a galaxy. Astronomers have long observed such motions and deduced the amount of gravity, and therefore the amount of matter, present in the planet, star, or galaxy. When taken to the extreme, gravity can also create some intriguing visual effects that are well suited to Hubble’s high-resolution observations.
[Albert]Einstein’s general theory of relativity expresses how very large mass concentrations distort the space around them. Light passing through that distorted space is re-directed, and can produce a variety of interesting imagery. The bending of light by gravity is similar to the bending of light by a glass lens, hence we call this effect gravitational lensing.
The simplest type of gravitational lensing is called “point source” lensing. There is a single concentration of matter at the center, such as the dense core of a galaxy. The light of a distant galaxy is re-directed around this core, often producing multiple images of the background galaxy (see image accompanying this article). When the lensing approaches perfect symmetry, a complete or almost-complete circle of light is produced, called an Einstein ring. Hubble observations have helped to greatly increase the number of Einstein rings known to astronomers.
More complex gravitational lensing arises in observations of massive clusters of galaxies. While the distribution of matter in a galaxy cluster generally does have a center, it is never circularly symmetric and can be significantly lumpy. Background galaxies are lensed by the cluster, with their images often appearing as short, thin “lensed arcs” around the outskirts of the cluster. Hubble’s images of galaxy clusters, such as Abell 2218 and Abell 1689, showed the large number and detailed distribution of these lensed images throughout massive galaxy clusters.
This image shows the full overview of the galaxy cluster Abell 2218 and its gravitational lenses. This image was taken by Hubble in 1999 during the Early Release Observations made immediately after the Hubble Servicing Mission 3A.
English: This new Hubble image shows galaxy cluster Abell 1689. It combines both visible and infrared data from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) with a combined exposure time of over 34 hours (image on left over 13 hours, image on right over 20 hours) to reveal this patch of sky in greater and striking detail than in previous observations.
This image is peppered with glowing golden clumps, bright stars, and distant, ethereal spiral galaxies. Material from some of these galaxies is being stripped away, giving the impression that the galaxy is dripping, or bleeding, into the surrounding space. Also visible are a number of electric blue streaks, circling and arcing around the fuzzy galaxies in the centre.
These streaks are the telltale signs of a cosmic phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Abell 1689 is so massive that it bends and warps the space around it, affecting how light from objects behind the cluster travels through space. These streaks are the distorted forms of galaxies that lie behind the cluster.
Date 12 September 2013
These lensed images also act as probes of the matter distribution in the galaxy cluster. Astronomers can measure the motions of the galaxies within a cluster to determine the total amount of matter in the cluster. The result indicates that the most of the matter in a galaxy cluster is not in the visible galaxies and does not emit light, and is thus called dark matter. The distribution of lensed images reflects the distribution of all matter, both visible and dark. Hence, Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing have been used to create maps of dark matter in galaxy clusters.
In turn, a map of the matter in a galaxy cluster helps provide better understanding and analysis of the gravitationally lensed images. A model of the matter distribution can help identify multiple images of the same galaxy or be used to predict where the most distant galaxies are likely to appear in a galaxy cluster image. Astronomers work back and forth between the gravitational lenses and the cluster matter distribution to improve our understanding of both.
On top of it all, gravitational lenses extend Hubble’s view deeper into the universe. Very distant galaxies are very faint. Gravitational lensing not only distorts the image of a background galaxy, it can amplify its light. Looking through a lensing galaxy cluster, Hubble can see fainter and more distant galaxies than otherwise possible. It is like having an extra lens that is the size of the galaxy cluster. The Frontier Fields project has examined multiple galaxy clusters, measured their lensing and matter distribution, and identified a collection of these most distant galaxies.
While the effects of normal gravity are measurable in the motions of objects, the effects of extreme gravity are visible in images of gravitational lensing. The diverse, lensed images of crosses, rings, arcs, and more are both intriguing and informative. Gravitational lensing probes the distribution of matter in galaxies and clusters of galaxies, and enables observations of the distant universe. Hubble’s data will also provide a basis and guide for the future James Webb Space Telescope [JWST], whose infrared observations will push yet farther into the cosmos.
The distorted imagery of gravitational lensing often is likened to the distorted reflections of funhouse mirrors, but don’t take that comparison too far. Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing provide a wide range of serious science.
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The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), is a free-standing science center, located on the campus of The Johns Hopkins University and operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) for NASA, conducts Hubble science operations.