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General relativity
G_{\mu \nu} + \Lambda g_{\mu \nu}= {8\pi G\over c^4} T_{\mu \nu}
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Event horizon · Singularity
Black hole

A gravitational lens is formed when the light from a very distant, bright source (such as a quasar) is "bent" around a massive object (such as a cluster of galaxies) between the source object and the observer. The process is known as gravitational lensing, and is one of the predictions of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Although Orest Chwolson is credited as being the first to discuss the effect in print (in 1924), the effect is more usually associated with Einstein, who published a more famous article on the subject in 1936.

Fritz Zwicky posited in 1937 that the effect could allow galaxy clusters to act as gravitational lenses. It was not until 1979 that this effect was confirmed by observation of the so-called "Twin QSO" SBS 0957+561.



Gravitational Lensing
2004-08-a-web print.jpg
Strong lensing
Weak lensing
Bending light around a massive object from a distant source. The orange arrows show the apparent position of the background source. The white arrows show the path of the light from the true position of the source.

The gravity from a massive object (such as a galaxy cluster or black hole) is warped space-time, bending everything in it—including the paths followed by light rays from a bright background source. This alters the time taken for the light to reach an observer, and can both magnify and distort the apparent image of the background source.

Unlike an optical lens, maximum 'bending' occurs closest to, and minimum 'bending' furthest from, the center of a gravitational lens. Consequently, a gravitational lens has no single focal point, but a focal line instead. If the (light) source, the massive lensing object, and the observer lie in a straight line, the original light source will appear as a ring around the massive lensing object, any misalignment and the observer will see an arc segment. This phenomenon was first mentioned in 1924 by the St. Petersburg physicist Orest Chwolson,[1] and quantified by Albert Einstein in 1936. It is usually referred to in the literature as an Einstein ring, since Chwolson did not concern himself with the flux or radius of the ring image. More commonly, where the lensing mass is complex and does not cause a spherical distortion of space-time, the source will resemble partial arcs scattered around the lens. The observer may then see multiple distorted images of the same source; the number and shape of these depending upon the relative positions of the source, lens, and observer, and the shape of the gravitational well of the lensing object.

In the formation known as Einstein's Cross, four images of the same distant quasar appears around a foreground galaxy due to strong gravitational lensing

There are three classes of gravitational lensing:[2]

1. Strong lensing: where there are easily visible distortions such as the formation of Einstein rings, arcs, and multiple images.

2. Weak lensing: where the distortions of background sources are much smaller and can only be detected by analyzing large numbers of sources to find coherent distortions of only a few percent. The lensing shows up statistically as a preferred stretching of the background objects perpendicular to the direction to the center of the lens. By measuring the shapes and orientations of large numbers of distant galaxies, their orientations can be averaged to measure the shear of the lensing field in any region. This, in turn, can be used to reconstruct the mass distribution in the area: in particular, the background distribution of dark matter can be reconstructed. Since galaxies are intrinsically elliptical and the weak gravitational lensing signal is small, a very large number of galaxies must be used in these surveys. These weak lensing surveys must carefully avoid a number of important sources of systematic error: the intrinsic shape of galaxies, the tendency of a camera's point spread function to distort the shape of a galaxy and the tendency of atmospheric seeing to distort images must be understood and carefully accounted for. The results of these surveys are important for cosmological parameter estimation, to better understand and improve upon the Lambda-CDM model, and to provide a consistency check on other cosmological observations. They may also provide an important future constraint on dark energy.

3. Microlensing: where no distortion in shape can be seen but the amount of light received from a background object changes in time. The lensing object may be stars in the Milky Way in one typical case, with the background source being stars in a remote galaxy, or, in another case, an even more distant quasar. The effect is small, such that (in the case of strong lensing) even a galaxy with a mass more than 100 billion times that of the sun will produce multiple images separated by only a few arcseconds. Galaxy clusters can produce separations of several arcminutes. In both cases the galaxies and sources are quite distant, many hundreds of megaparsecs away from our Galaxy.

Gravitational lenses act equally on all kinds of electromagnetic radiation, not just visible light. Weak lensing effects are being studied for the cosmic microwave background as well as galaxy surveys. Strong lenses have been observed in radio and x-ray regimes as well. If a strong lens produces multiple images, there will be a relative time delay between two paths: that is, in one image the lensed object will be observed before the other image.



Simulated gravitational lensing (black hole going past a background galaxy).

To the right is a simulation of gravitational lensing caused by a Schwarzschild black hole passing in front of a background galaxy. A secondary image of the galaxy can be seen within the black hole's Einstein radius on the side opposite the galaxy. The secondary image grows (remaining within the Einstein ring) as the primary image approaches the black hole. The surface brightness of the two images remains constant, but their angular sizes vary, hence producing an amplification of the galaxy luminosity as seen by a distant observer. Maximum amplification occurs when the galaxy (or in this case a bright part of it) is exactly behind the black hole.


According to general relativity, mass "warps" space-time to create gravitational fields and therefore bend light as a result. This theory was confirmed in 1919 during a solar eclipse, when Arthur Eddington observed the light from stars passing close to the sun was slightly bent, so that stars appeared slightly out of position.

Einstein realized that it was also possible for astronomical objects to bend light, and that under the correct conditions, one would observe multiple images of a single source, called a gravitational lens or sometimes a gravitational mirage.

However, as he only considered gravitational lensing by single stars, he concluded that the phenomenon would most likely remain unobserved for the foreseeable future. In 1937, Fritz Zwicky first considered the case where a galaxy could act as a source, something that according to his calculations should be well within the reach of observations.

It was not until 1979 that the first gravitational lens would be discovered. It became known as the "Twin QSO" since it initially looked like two identical quasistellar objects; it is officially named SBS 0957+561. This gravitational lens was discovered accidentally by Dennis Walsh, Bob Carswell, and Ray Weymann using the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1 meter telescope.

In the 1980s, astronomers realized that the combination of CCD imagers and computers would allow the brightness of millions of stars to be measured each night. In a dense field, such as the galactic center or the Magellanic clouds, many microlensing events per year could potentially be found. This led to efforts such as Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE, that have characterized hundreds of such events.

Explanation in terms of space-time curvature

In general relativity, light falls down. So light passing around a massive object will fall towards it. This means that the light from an object on the other side will be bent towards your eye, just like an ordinary lens. Since light always moves at a constant speed, lensing changes the direction of the velocity of the light, but not the magnitude.

Light rays are the boundary between the future, the spacelike, and the past regions. The gravitational attraction can be viewed as the motion of undisturbed objects in a background curved geometry or alternatively as the response of objects to a force in a flat geometry. The angle of deflection is:

\theta = \frac{4GM}{rc^2}

toward the mass M at a distance r from the affected radiation, where G is the universal constant of gravitation and c is the speed of light in a vacuum. Some care needs to be taken in defining this distance because gravity is not instantaneous: like light, it propagates at speed c. The path of the gravitational wave and the electromagnetic radiation intersect at specific space-time coordinates, and the lensing is determined by the component of the incident gravitational wave perpendicular to the direction of the electromagnetic radiation's motion.


Actual gravitational lensing effects as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in Abell 1689 - Enlarge the image to see the lensing arcs

Studying the background sources

Gravitational lenses can be used as gravitational telescopes, because they concentrate the light from objects seen behind them, making very faint objects appear brighter, larger and therefore more easily studied. Researchers at Caltech have used the strong gravitational lensing afforded by the Abell 2218 cluster of galaxies to detect the most distant galaxy known (February 15, 2004) through imaging with the Hubble Space Telescope. Objects at such distances would not normally be visible, providing information from further back in time than otherwise possible.

Similarly, microlensing events can be used to obtain additional information about the source star. In addition to the greater brightness, limb darkening can be measured during high magnification events[3]. If the source star is part of a binary system, the orbital motion of the source can sometimes be measured (called the xallarap effect, by analogy to parallax which is caused by the orbital motion of the Earth).

Studying the foreground lenses

Observations of gravitational lensing can also be inverted to examine the lens itself. Direct measurements of the mass in any astronomical object are rare, and always welcome. While most other astronomical observations are sensitive only to emitted light, theories are generally concerned with the distribution of mass. Comparing mass and light typically involves assumptions about complicated astrophysical processes. Gravitational lensing is particularly useful if the lens is for some reason difficult to see.

Gravitational microlensing can provide information on comparatively small astronomical objects, such as MACHOs within our own galaxy, or extrasolar planets (planets beyond the solar system). Three extrasolar planets have been found in this way, and this technique has the promise of finding Earth-mass planets around sunlike stars within the 21st century. The MOA and PLANET collaborations focus on this research.

3D map of the large-scale distribution of dark matter, reconstructed from measurements of weak gravitational lensing with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Strong and weak gravitational lensing of distant galaxies by foreground clusters can probe the amount and distribution of mass, which is dominated by invisible dark matter. Aside from determining how much dark matter they contain, its distribution in these systems depends upon properties including the mass of its (unknown) constituent particles and their collisional cross-section. The number of strong gravitational lenses throughout the sky can also be used to measure values of cosmological parameters such as the mean density of matter in the universe. Presently, the statistics do not place very strong limits on cosmological parameters, partly because the number of strong lenses found is relatively small (fewer than a hundred). Weak gravitational lensing can extend the analysis away from these most massive clusters and, for example, reconstruct the large-scale distribution of mass. This is sensitive to cosmological parameters including the mean density of matter, its clustering properties and the cosmological constant.

Geometry of the universe

A purely geometric effect, gravitational lensing can be used to measure the expansion history of the universe (its size as a function of time since the big bang), which is encoded in Hubble's law. If the mass distribution in a foreground lens is well understood (typically from multiple strong lensing arcs, and possibly weak lensing in the outskirts), two other free parameters can be used to constrain the Hubble constant, or deviations from Hubble's law caused by dark energy. In principle, and in both cases, only one gravitational lens for the best possible measurement. The search continues for that perfect lens, with many multiply-imaged arcs.

There will be a time delay (around days or weeks) between multiple images of the same source because of

  1. the delay due to the difference in optical path length between the two rays.
  2. the general relativistic Shapiro effect, which describes light rays as taking longer to traverse a region of stronger gravitation, (see: gravity well, gravitational time dilation). Because the two rays travel through different parts of the potential well created by the deflector, the clocks carrying the source's signal will differ by a small amount.

If either the amount or the spectrum of light emitted by the background source varies over time, characteristic variations can be seen to occur first in one image and then others.

A gravitational lens magnifies and distorts very distant sources more than those only just behind the lens (and it does not distort those in front of the lens). Indeed, simple geometry can be used to calculate the efficiency of a gravitational lens as a function of the angular diameter distance to the source. If the distortion can be measured at multiple distances, this distance can be compared to the redshift of those sources: a direct Hubble diagram. Furthermore, this technique effectively requires only the ratio of the distortion at two distances. The total mass of the foreground lens therefore cancels out and does not need to be constrained (although its radial profile does). Using a more massive lens simply increases the signal to noise of the measurement.

Search for gravitational lenses

Most of the gravitational lenses in the past have been discovered accidentally. A search for gravitational lenses in the northern hemisphere (Cosmic Lens All Sky Survey, CLASS), done in radio frequencies using the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, led to the discovery of 22 new lensing systems, a major milestone. This has opened a whole new avenue for research ranging from finding very distant objects to finding values for cosmological parameters so we can understand the universe better.

A similar search in the southern hemisphere would be a very good step towards complementing the northern hemisphere search as well as obtaining other objectives for study. As can be expected, if such a search is done using well calibrated and well parametrized instrument and data, we can expect to have a very good outcome. The use of the Australia Telescope 20 GHz (AT20G) Survey data collected using the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) stands to be such a collection of data. As the data was collected using the same instrument maintaining a very stringent quality of data we should expect to obtain good results from the search. The AT20G survey is a blind survey at 20 GHz frequency in the radio domain of the electromagnetic spectrum. Due to the high frequency used, the chances finding gravitational lenses increases as the relative number of compact core objects (eg. Quasars) are higher (Sadler et al. 2006). This is important as the lensing is easier to detect and identify in simple objects compared to objects with complexity in them. This search involves the use of interferometric methods to identify candidates and follow them up at higher resolution to identify them. Full detail of the project is currently under works for publication.

In a recent article on Science Daily (Jan. 21 2009) a team of scientists led by a cosmologist from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has made major progress in extending the use of gravitational lensing to the study of much older and smaller structures than was previously possible by stating that weak gravitational lensing improves measurements of distant galaxies.[4]

See also

Historical papers and references


  1. ^ Gravity Lens - Part 2 (Great Moments in Science, ABS Science)
  2. ^ Melia, Fulvio (2007). The Galactic Supermassive Black Hole. Princeton University Press. pp. 255–256. ISBN 0-691-13129-5. 
  3. ^ "Stellar Atmospheres". MOA collaboration. 
  4. ^ [1]

Other sources

Further reading

External links


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