As Albert Einstein developed his theory of general relativity nearly a century ago, he proposed that the gravitational field from massive objects could dramatically warp space and deflect light.
The optical illusion created by this effect is called gravitational lensing. It is nature's equivalent of having a giant magnifying lens in space that distorts and amplifies the light of more distant objects. Einstein described gravitational lensing in a paper published in 1936. But he thought the effect was unobservable because the optical distortions produced by foreground stars warping space would be too small to ever be measurable by the largest telescopes of his time.
Now, almost a century later, astronomers have combined two powerful astronomical assets, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, to identify 19 new "gravitationally lensed" galaxies, adding significantly to the approximately 100 gravitational lenses previously known. Among these 19, they have found eight new so-called "Einstein rings", which are perhaps the most elegant manifestation of the lensing phenomenon. Only three such rings had previously been seen in visible light.
In gravitational lensing, light from distant galaxies can be deflected on its way to Earth by the gravitational field of any massive object that lies in the way. Because of this, we see the galaxy distorted into an arc or multiple separate images. When both galaxies are exactly lined up, the light forms a bull's-eye pattern, called an Einstein ring, around the foreground galaxy.
The newly discovered lenses come from an ongoing project called the Sloan Lens ACS Survey (SLACS). A team of astronomers, led by Adam Bolton of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and Leon Koopmans of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, selected the candidate lenses from among several hundred thousand optical spectra of elliptical galaxies in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They then used the sharp eyes of Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to make the confirmation.
"The massive scale of the SDSS, together with the imaging quality of the Hubble telescope, has opened up this unprecedented opportunity for the discovery of new gravitational lenses," Bolton explained. "We've succeeded in identifying the one out of every 1,000 galaxies that show these signs of gravitational lensing of another galaxy."
The SLACS team scanned the spectra of approximately 200,000 galaxies 2 to 4 billion light-years away. The team was looking for clear evidence of emission from galaxies twice as far from Earth and directly behind the closer galaxies. They then used Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys to snap images of 28 of these candidate lensing galaxies. By studying the arcs and rings produced by 19 of these candidates, the astronomers can precisely measure the mass of the foreground galaxies.
Besides producing odd shapes, gravitational lensing gives astronomers the most direct probe of the distribution of dark matter in elliptical galaxies. Dark matter is an invisible and exotic form of matter that has not yet been directly observed. Astronomers infer its existence by measuring its gravitational influence. Dark matter is pervasive within galaxies and makes up most of the total mass of the universe. By searching for dark matter in galaxies, astronomers hope to gain insight into galaxy formation, which must have started around lumpy concentrations of dark matter in the early universe.
"Our results indicate that, on average, these ‘elliptical lensing galaxies' have the same special mass-density structure as that observed in spiral galaxies," Bolton continued. "This corresponds to an increase in the proportion of dark matter relative to stars as one moves away from the center of the lensing galaxy and into its fainter outskirts. And since these lensing gelaxies are relatively bright, we can solidify this result with further ground-based spectroscopic observations of the stellar motions in the lenses."
"Being able to study these and other gravitational lenses as far back in time as several billion years allows us to see directly whether the distribution of dark [invisible] and visible mass changes with cosmic time," Dr. Koopmans added. "With this information, we can test the commonly held idea that galaxies form from collision and mergers of smaller galaxies."
The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, from which the SLACS lens-candidate sample was selected, was begun in 1998 with a custom-built ground-based telescope to measure the colors and brightnesses of more than 100 million objects over a quarter of the sky and map the distances to a million galaxies and quasars. "This type of gravitational-lens survey was not an original goal of the SDSS, but was made possible by the excellent quality of the SDSS data," said Scott Burles of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., a SLACS team member and one of the creators of the SDSS.
"An additional bonus of the large size of the SDSS database is that we can design our search criteria so as to find the lenses that are most suitable for specific science goals," said SLACS team member Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Whereas until now we have selected the largest galaxies as our targets, in the next stages of the survey we are targeting smaller lens galaxies. There have been suggestions that the structure of galaxies changes with galaxy size. By identifying these rare objects 'on demand,' we will soon be able for the first time to test whether this is true."
Added SLACS team member Leonidas Moustakas of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.: "These Einstein rings also give an unrivaled magnified view of the lensed galaxies, allowing us to study the stars and the formation histories of these distant galaxies."
The SLACS Survey is continuing, and so far the team has used Hubble to study almost 50 of their candidate lensing galaxies. The eventual total is expected to be more than 100, with many more new lenses among them. The initial findings of the survey will appear in the February 2006 issue of the Astrophysical Journal and in two other papers that have been submitted to that journal.
Dolores Beasley/Erica Hupp
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, MA
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA