Space enthusiasts now have access to images of a part of the galaxy never seen before due to the work of a team of University astronomers.

Keren Sharon, a visiting scholar at the University, is a member of a scientific team that recently discovered a more detailed image of a galaxy in space using gravitational lensing — a natural phenomenon in which the trajectory of large space objects is shifted due to gravitational fields, allowing for greater visual access to entities like galaxies, stars and black holes.

“Gravitational lensing happens when light from something that is really far away behind you travels close to a very massive object … And because of the gravitational field that this massive object creates, the light bends its trajectory,” Sharon said.

Specifically, Sharon said instances of gravitational lensing occur when a cluster of galaxies interferes with the trajectory of light from an object behind the large cluster, adding that this is similar to an optical illusion experienced when looking at objects behind or inside a glass of water or a fish tank.

“It’s a pure coincidence because you need to have the right galaxy behind the right cluster just in the right geometry, but sometimes it happens,” Sharon said. “And when it happens … we can use the clusters to help us study the background universe.”

As part of gravitational lensing, the bodies of mass in space serve as tools to magnify objects by redirecting light from those objects and focusing the light on the observer. Without the cluster magnifying anything behind it, astronomers would need to use a telescope that is 30 times stronger that the models they typically use to view the distant galaxy, Sharon said.

Sharon and her team are able to view some of these galaxies through the Hubble Space Telescope. She said it is possible to determine which galaxies are being multiplied because they have very similar shapes, sizes and colors but are located differently in the image the team recently discovered.

“It’s interesting for us in several ways, (if) you know what to look for, and you apply the right equations … you can actually measure the piece of mass that’s in the center that forms the lens” Sharon says.

Physics Prof. Fred Adams said images of planets are discovered frequently every year, but noted this image is unique.

“It’s more lined up … in such a way that you get more information than usual, so that’s more rare … this is one of the better ones in history,” Adams said.

Sharon said she takes the distorted image and uses a sequence of equations to predict what the background galaxy looks like, adding that some images are harder to decipher than others.

“When you start with something like this, you try to solve a puzzle, and all the pieces to fall together,” she said. “Some puzzles are easier than others just because a picture looks a little bit different, not because the pieces are bigger or smaller or anything … it all falls in to place.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.