farthest cosmic lens
August 2, 2014

Hubble Telescope Locates Most Distant Lensing Galaxy Ever Discovered

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A massive new elliptical galaxy unexpectedly discovered using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is the most distant lensing galaxy ever discovered, officials from the US space agency confirmed in a statement Thursday.

Lensing galaxies essentially act as a cosmic magnifying glass, and are large enough that their gravity can bend and distort light in such a way that they can make it easier to detect more distant objects in space. Light from the newly discovered galaxy takes a reported 9.6 billion years to reach us – 200 million years more than the previous record holder, according to Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post.

Furthermore, the objects it is magnifying is a tiny spiral galaxy located some 10.7 billion light years away, and thanks to the discovery of the new lensing galaxy, we can currently observe the galaxy as it experiences a tremendous surge in star formation, Feltman added. The discovery of lensing galaxies such as this one will help astronomers learn more about how early universe galaxies grow and become filled with dark matter as they age.

“When you look more than 9 billion years ago in the early universe, you don't expect to find this type of galaxy lensing at all,” explained lead researcher Kim-Vy Tran of Texas A&M University. “It's very difficult to see an alignment between two galaxies in the early universe.”

“Imagine holding a magnifying glass close to you and then moving it much farther away,” Tran added. “When you look through a magnifying glass held at arm's length, the chances that you will see an enlarged object are high. But if you move the magnifying glass across the room, your chances of seeing the magnifying glass nearly perfectly aligned with another object beyond it diminishes.”

According to research team members Kenneth Wong and Sherry Suyu of Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy & Astrophysics (ASIAA), this lensing alignment allowed them to measure the total mass of the gigantic galaxy, including its dark matter, by gauging the intensity of the lensing effect on the light of the background galaxy.

The closer galaxy weight approximately 180 billion times more than our sun, making it a truly massive galaxy for its age. It is also one of the brightest members of a distant galactic cluster known as IRC 0218, they added. While these cosmic magnifying glasses are not particularly rare, Wong said that it is unusually to find one so far away.

“There are hundreds of lens galaxies that we know about, but almost all of them are relatively nearby, in cosmic terms,” he said. “To find a lens as far away as this one is a very special discovery because we can learn about the dark-matter content of galaxies in the distant past. By comparing our analysis of this lens galaxy to the more nearby lenses, we can start to understand how that dark-matter content has evolved over time.”

The discovery also marks another milestone for Hubble, whose instruments continue to operate effectively some five years after it was last serviced by a space shuttle, noted William Harwood of CBS News. Even though one of its six stabilizing gyroscopes has failed, NASA officials remain optimistic that it will continue to operate through 2020, which would allow it to work alongside its successor, the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

John Grunsfeld, director of space science operations for the US space agency and one of the spacewalkers who helped service Hubble back in 2009, said that the telescope was “doing great,” and that if NASA can keep it operational until the launch of the Webb telescope, it would provide a “tremendous” research opportunity.

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