Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gravitational Lenses: the Mutant Truth of this Cosmic Conundrum

As defined by's resources, gravitational lenses are most appropriately "a heavy, dense body, as a galaxy, that lies along our line of sight to a more distant object, as a quasar, and whose gravitational field refracts the light of that object, splitting it into multiple images as seen from the earth." Although this might seem confusing and rather arcane, this cosmic conundrum is mysterious and yet beautiful, all beginning with an Albert Einstein theorem: the theorem of relativity. Just barely scratching the surface on such a complex theory (which has been proven to be truth, see following paragraph), relativity scope deals that space and time are bent, causing things (i.e., distant objects) to be bent, or distorted. 

How was such a theorem actually confirmed to be true? Developed in 1915, it took three separate tests to confirm its reality; I will only contemplate one: the total solar eclipse. In the article published by Arthur Eddington (and other astronomers) entitled, A determination of the deflection of light by the Sun's gravitational field, from observations made at the total eclipse of 29 May 1919, Einstein's theory was claimed to be true, as Eddington writes describing the purpose, then the outcome of the endevour:
PURPOSE: "The purpose of the expeditions was to determine what effect, if any, is produced by a gravitational field on the path of a ray of light traversing it. Apart from possible surprises, there appeared to be three alternatives, which it was especially desired to discriminate between—  (1) The path is uninfluenced by gravitation. (2) The energy or mass of light is subject to gravitation in the same way as ordinary matter. If the law of gravitation is strictly the Newtonian law, this leads to an apparent displacement of a star close to the sun's limb amounting to 0” 87 outwards. (3) The course of a ray of light is in accordance with EINSTEIN’S generalized relativity theory. This leads to an apparent displacement of a star at the limb amounting to 1” 75 outwards."
RESULT: "Thus the results of the expeditions ... can leave little doubt that a deflection of light takes place in the neighborhood of the sun and that it is of the amount demanded by Einstein's generalized theory of relativity, as attributable to the sun’s gravitational field."

Now that we have determined that this is true and that time and space are actually bent, we can now look further into the mysteries of gravitational lenses. As stated before, a gravitational lens is the distortion of an object behind a closer object, which its light is seen differently than it would be seen. These are also referred to as Einstein rings. Before you try to comprehend this, look at the image below. The yellow object is a galaxy, the ring around it is as well, but not as you would expect it to have been.

Gravitational lenses are at work in the above image! The object above is known as LRG 3-757, and APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day, December 21, 2011) calls this a "mirage," which is indeed what it is. Watch this animation of a black hole lens, which distorts the galaxy behind it. Below is an image of the event, more like a series, which proves my point: 

You know that the galaxy behind the black hole in the images is straight, but when that black hole moves over it, we see a halo around it: that is the rings we see around galaxies, like LRG 3-757 above. These are not only beautiful in form, but intrinsic in its true scientific properties. These gravitational lenses are quite spectacular! You might think that only a few of these exist. This is not true, but rather astronomers have seen this effect in many different instances, of which each separate event being just as different as another. [Image index: 1)  Abel 1689 in Virgo. You can see the small, different mutation circlets in the background if you look hard enough. 2) Abel 370 in Cetus. These are more pronounced. 3) Abel 2280. These are thin and wispy, quite spectacular.   

Considered quite different than the above gravitational lenses, the Einstein's Cross in Pegasus (pictured below) is the most exotic of them all. Known by its appropriate name, Q2237+030 or QSO 2237+0305, is a gravitationally-lensed quasar behind ZW 2237+030, another object. Wikipedia states that "four images of the same distant quasar appear around a foreground galaxy due to strong gravitational lensing." 

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