Astronomers discover unusual cosmic lens

Last Updated : 16 July 2010, 10:09 IST
Last Updated : 16 July 2010, 10:09 IST

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Quasars, the 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.
Astronomers, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, who made this discovery said it would provide a novel way to understand these host galaxies.

"It is a bit like staring into bright car headlights and trying to discern the colour of their rims," said Frederic Courbin of EPFL, the lead author of the study, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Using gravitational lensing, he said, "we now can measure the masses of these quasar host galaxies and overcome this difficulty".
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 scientists said.

The first such gravitational lens was discovered in 1979, and 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 research, carried out at W M Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, 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 W M Keck Observatory's 10-meter 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 Prof S George Djorgovski, leader of the Caltech team.
Furthermore, he added, "discoveries of more such systems will help us understand better the relationship between quasars and the galaxies which contain them, and their coevolution."

Published 16 July 2010, 10:09 IST

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