Press Release

Yale Astronomer Sees New Gravitational Lens

By SpaceRef Editor
May 30, 2003
Filed under , ,
Yale Astronomer Sees New Gravitational Lens
lens

Using a snapshot technique, a Yale astronomer has discovered
a bright new gravitational lens.

The gravitational lens was observed on April 25 by Nicholas Morgan, a
post-doctoral fellow at the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, using
the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson,
Arizona. The lens is located near the constellation Hercules and is officially
known as SDSS 1650+4251.

Gravitational lenses are images of bright but extremely distant galaxies known
as quasars. The light from these distant quasars is deflected by the
gravitational fields of fainter foreground galaxies, distorting the background
quasar into multiple copies of itself. Sometimes as many as four copies of the
single quasar are possible. About 70 of these systems have been discovered since
the first sighting in 1979. How distorted the images become and how many copies
are made depends on the alignment between the foreground galaxy and the more
distant quasar.

"You need exquisite alignment," said Morgan.

The value of finding a gravitational lens, he said, is that it can help in
deducing the age of the universe by watching how the light from the quasar
changes with time. Finding several lenses can also help in calculating the
expansion rate of the universe, whether it is decelerating or accelerating, and
if the universe will eventually collapse or expand forever.

The snapshot technique used by Morgan involves taking pictures of multiple
targets. He looked at over 200 targets during the two nights of observations,
taking a picture every few minutes. Astronomers generally look at only a handful
of targets in the same period.

"You look at as many distant quasars as possible," he said. "For each, you have
about a one percent chance of finding a gravitational lens. Sometimes you get
lucky."

Ideal conditions are also dependent on the weather and the performance of the
telescope.

Morgan said SDSS 1650+4251 appears as a relatively small system with a
separation between its two images of about one arcsecond. One arcsecond is about
the size a dime would appear if held two miles away. The largest gravitationally
lensed quasars currently known are slightly larger than six arseconds.

The WIYN Observatory is owned and operated by the WIYN Consortium, which
consists of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University,
and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories.

EDITORS: A photo of the gravitational lens is available at
http://www.yale.edu/opa/assets/images/releases/20030520_lens.jpg (12KB)
after 3 P.M. EST, on May 26, 2003. It is an I-band image of the new
gravitationally lensed quasar SDSS taken with the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope in
0.3-arcsecond seeing at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.
PHOTO CREDIT: NOAO/KPNO/N. D. Morgan.

SpaceRef staff editor.