A new Hubble Space Telescope photograph shows an impressive “Einstein’s Ring” billions of light years from Earth – a phenomenon named for Albert Einstein, who predicted that gravity could bend light.
The round object in the center of the photograph released by the European Space Agency is actually three galaxies that appear as seven, with four separate images of the more distant galaxies forming a visible ring around the others.
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The most distant galaxy – a special type of very bright galaxy with a gigantic black hole at its center, known as a quasar – is about 15 billion light-years from Earth.
At such a great distance, it should be invisible to even the best space telescopes, but its light is bent by the two galaxies ahead, about 3 billion light years away, so its image appears to us in five separate places: four times in the ring and once in the center of the ring, although this can only be detected in the telescope’s numerical data.
The rare phenomenon is named after Einstein, the physicist who predicted in 1911 that gravity would affect light the same way it affects physical matter. Einstein proposed the idea as a test of his theory of general relativity in 1915, and in 1919 British astronomer Arthur Eddington confirmed the effect during a solar eclipse on the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa, noting that stars near the eclipsed disk looked like slightly out of place because its light was being bent by the sun’s gravity.
Telescopes of Einstein’s time were unable to detect any other signs of the phenomenon. It was first seen by astronomers at the Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona in 1979 as the Twin Quasar QSO 0957 + 561 , a single quasar that looks like two here on Earth because its image is “etched into lenses” by a closer galaxy, but invisible.
Since then, astronomers have discovered hundreds of Einstein’s rings – the alignment of distant galaxies has to be perfect and nothing can be seen without a large telescope. A common formation is the Einstein Cross, in which a distant galaxy appears as four separate images around a galaxy closer to Earth, but the closest galaxy is too dark to be seen.
Einstein’s rings and Einstein’s crosses are more than just beautiful phenomena – gravitational lenses allow astronomers to look much further into the depths of the universe and reveal hidden details of the galaxies that cause the lenses.
“Einstein’s rings and Einstein’s crosses are presumably evidence of more material in galaxies closer than the eye can see, and that probably means dark matter,” said astronomer Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Its distribution may “help to illuminate the identity and distribution of dark matter and the relativistic geometry of the entire universe.”
These gravitational lenses also detected some of the most distant dwarf galaxies in the universe, which, being among the oldest, can tell astronomers more about galaxy formation, while the gravitational “microlens” – variations in the light of individual stars – revealed the invisible distant presence, Krupp said in an email.
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