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Unusual Quasar Cosmic Lens Found

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PASADENA, Calif., July 22, 2010 — Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology and École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have discovered the first known case of a distant galaxy being magnified by a quasar acting as a gravitational lens. The discovery, based in part on observations made at the Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, was published July 16 in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

(Images: F. Courbin, S.G. Djorgovski, G. Meylan, et al., Caltech/EPFL/Keck Observatory)

Quasars, which are extraordinary luminous objects in the distant universe, are thought to be powered by supermassive black holes in the cores of galaxies. A single quasar could be a thousand times brighter than an entire galaxy of a hundred billion stars, which makes studies of their host galaxies exceedingly difficult. The significance of the discovery, the researchers say, is that it provides a novel way to understand these host galaxies.

“It is a bit like staring into bright car headlights and trying to discern the color of their rims,” said Frederic Courbin of EPFL, the lead author on the paper. Using gravitational lensing, “we now can measure the masses of these quasar host galaxies and overcome this difficulty,” he added.

According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, if a large mass (such as a big galaxy or a cluster of galaxies) is placed along the line of sight to a distant galaxy, the part of the light that comes from the galaxy will split. Because of this, an observer on Earth will see two or more close images of the now-magnified background galaxy.

The first such gravitational lens was discovered in 1979, and it produced an image of a distant quasar that was magnified and split by a foreground galaxy. Hundreds of cases of gravitationally lensed quasars are now known. But, until the current work, the reverse process – a background galaxy being lensed by the massive host galaxy of a foreground quasar – had never been detected.

Using gravitational lensing to measure the masses of distant galaxies independent of their brightness was suggested in 1936 by Caltech astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, and the technique has been used effectively for this purpose in recent years. Until now, it had never been applied to measure the masses of quasar hosts themselves.

To find the cosmic lens, the astronomers searched a large database of quasar spectra obtained by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) to select candidates for “reverse” quasar-galaxy gravitational lensing. Follow-up observations of the best candidate – quasar SDSS J0013+1523, located about 1.6 billion light years away – using the Keck Observatory’s 10-m telescope, confirmed that the quasar was indeed magnifying a distant galaxy, located about 7.5 billion light years away.

“We were delighted to see that this idea actually works,” said Georges Meylan, a professor of physics and leader of the EPFL team. “This discovery demonstrates the continued utility of gravitational lensing as an astrophysical tool.”

“Quasars are valuable probes of galaxy formation and evolution,” said S. George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and leader of the Caltech team. Furthermore, “discoveries of more such systems will help us understand better the relationship between quasars and the galaxies which contain them, and their co-evolution,” he said.

Other co-authors of the Astronomy & Astrophysics paper, titled “First Case of Strong Gravitational Lensing by a QSO: SDSS J0013+1523 at z = 0.120,” are Malte Tewes and François Rerat of EPFL, Ashish Mahabal of Caltech and Dominique Sluse of the Astronomical Research Institute in Heidelberg, Germany.

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Jul 2010
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
gravitational lens
The effect of a powerful gravitational field on light traveling through the field. This effect is detectable in astronomical observations when light from a distant source passes a massive object before reaching an observer. When the source of the light is behind the massive object, the gravitational lens results in a ringlike formation of light.
AmericasAshish MahabalastronomyAstronomy & AstrophysicsBasic Scienceblack holesCaliforniaCalifornia Institute of TechnologyCaltechÉcole Polytechnique Federale de LausanneEPFLFrançois ReratFrederic CourbinFritz Zwickygalactic centersGeorges Meylangravitational lensHawaiiimagingKeck ObservatoryMalte TewesquasarsResearch & TechnologyS. George DjorgovskiSDSS J0013+1523Sloan Digital Sky SurveySwitzerland

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