Astronomers Use Distortions in Space-Time for Record-Breaking Telescope Magnification
We've built some incredibly powerful telescopes, to the point that they don't even look like telescopes anymore: the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Telescope, and the Very Large Telescope are a far cry from the cylinder with two lenses that Galileo cooked up 400 years ago.
But there's a unique trick astronomers have been using to boost the range of their telescopes, and it involves bending the fabric of space-time itself: gravitational lensing.
The phenomenon was first observed in 1919 during a solar eclipse and even predicted by Einstein.
Essentially, gravitational lensing occurs when a massive body, like the sun or a galaxy, comes between us (the observers) and what we're trying to observe: light from the object is bent around the massive object in a double parabola shape, which in turn magnifies the image when it reaches us here on Earth.
Today, scientists observed one of the most powerful instances of gravitational lensing ever, allowing astronomers to peer into the eMACSJ1341-QG-1 galaxy.
EMACSJ1341-QG-1 is a particularly exciting target for astronomers because it's stopped forming stars from giant clouds of gas, despite the fact that it should still be doing so.
Mikkel Stockmann, from the University of Copenhagen, says that's a major find:
"...As we look at more distant galaxies, we are also looking back in time, so we are seeing objects that are younger and should not yet have used up their gas supply. Understanding why this galaxy has already stopped forming stars may give us critical clues about the processes that govern how galaxies evolve."
Astronomers have already made a slew of amazing discoveries with conventional telescopes, including the discovery of new, bizarrely shaped galaxies and perhaps even evidence of life on Saturn's moon Titan. As science teams get better at taking advantage of gravitational lenses, we may be able to peer even farther into the depths of space.