Close up on hidden galaxies with new cosmic zoom lenses

05 Nov 2010 10:36:34.030

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Astronomers have discovered a new way of locating a natural phenomenon that acts like a zoom lens and allows astronomers to peer at galaxies in the distant and early Universe.  These results are from the very first data taken as part of the “Herschel-ATLAS” project, the largest imaging survey conducted so far with the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, and are published in the prestigious scientific journal Science.

The magnification allows astronomers to see galaxies otherwise hidden from us when the Universe was only a few billion years old. This provides key insights into how galaxies have changed over the history of the cosmos. 

Dr Loretta Dunne from the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Nottingham is joint-leader of the Herschel-ATLAS survey. Dr Dunne said: “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.  Wide area surveys are essential for finding these rare events and since Herschel has only covered one thirtieth of the entire Herschel-ATLAS area so far, we expect to discover hundreds of lenses once we have all the data. Once found, we can probe the early Universe on the same physical scales as we can in galaxies next door.

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“The data from the area of sky used for this work has now been released to the astronomical community and we hope that now astronomers not directly involved in H-ATLAS will dive into this data set and exploit the wealth of science which is bursting to be done with it.”

A century ago Albert Einstein showed that gravity can cause light to bend.  The effect is normally extremely small, and it is only when light passes close to a very massive object such as a galaxy containing hundreds of billions of stars that the results become easily noticeable.  When light from a very distant object passes a galaxy much closer to us, its path can be bent in such a way that the image of the distant galaxy is magnified and distorted.  These alignment events are called “gravitational lenses” and many have been discovered over recent decades, mainly at visible and radio wavelengths.

As with a normal glass lens the alignment is crucial, requiring the position of the lens — in this case a galaxy — to be just right.  This is very rare and astronomers have to rely on chance alignments, often involving sifting through large amounts of data from telescopes.  Most methods of searching for gravitational lenses have a very poor success rate with fewer than one in 10 candidates typically being found to be real.

Herschel looks at far-infrared light, which is emitted not by stars, but by the gas and dust from which they form. Its panoramic imaging cameras have allowed astronomers to find examples of these lenses by scanning large areas of the sky in far-infrared and sub-millimetre light. 

Dr Mattia Negrello, of the Open University and lead researcher of the study, said: “Our survey of the sky looks for sources of sub-millimetre light. The big breakthrough is that we have discovered that many of the brightest sources are being magnified by lenses, which means that we no longer have to rely on the rather inefficient methods of finding lenses which are used at visible and radio wavelengths.”

The Herschel-ATLAS images contain thousands of galaxies, most so far away that the light has taken billions of years to reach us.  Dr Negrello and his team investigated five surprisingly bright objects in this small patch of sky. Looking at the positions of these bright objects with optical telescopes on the Earth, they found galaxies that would not normally be bright at the far-infrared wavelengths observed by Herschel. This led them to suspect that the galaxies seen in visible light might be gravitational lenses magnifying much more distant galaxies seen by Herschel.

To find the true distances to the Herschel sources, Negrello and his team looked for a tell-tale signature of molecular gas. Using radio and sub-millimetre telescopes on the ground, they showed that this signature implies the galaxies are being seen as they were when the Universe was just 2–4 billion years old — less than a third of its current age.  The galaxies seen by the optical telescopes are much closer, each ideally positioned to create a gravitational lens.  Dr Negrello commented that “previous searches for magnified galaxies have targeted clusters of galaxies where the huge mass of the cluster makes the gravitational lensing effect unavoidable. Our results show that gravitational lensing is at work in not just a few, but in all of the distant and bright galaxies seen by Herschel.”

The magnification provided by these cosmic zoom lenses allows astronomers to study much fainter galaxies, and in more detail than would otherwise be possible. They are the key to understanding how the building blocks of the Universe have changed since they were in their infancy.  Professor Rob Ivison of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, part of the team that created the images, said “This relatively simple technique promises to unlock the secrets of how galaxies like our Milky Way formed and evolved. Not only does the lensing allow us to find them very efficiently, but it helps us peer within them to figure out how the individual pieces of the jigsaw came together, back in the mists of time”.

Professor Steve Eales from Cardiff University and the other leader of the survey added: “We can also use this technique to study the lenses themselves.  This is exciting because 80 per cent of the matter in the Universe is thought to be dark matter, which does not absorb, reflect or emit light and so can’t be seen directly with our telescopes. With the large number of gravitational lenses that we’ll get from our full survey, we’ll really be able to get to grips with this hidden Universe.”

For more information, please visit:

Herschel-ATLAS website:

UK Herschel Website:

ESA Herschel Websites: and

ESA Herschel Science Centre (HSC) website:

For high resolution images, please visit:

[username: presrel ; password: esa2010]

The University of Nottingham has broad research portfolio but has also identified and badged 13 research priority groups, in which a concentration of expertise, collaboration and resources create significant critical mass. Key research areas at Nottingham include energy, drug discovery, global food security, biomedical imaging, advanced manufacturing, integrating global society, operations in a digital world, and science, technology & society.

Through these groups, Nottingham researchers will continue to make a major impact on global challenges.

The image on The University of Nottingham website is courtesy of: Herschel-ATLAS_SDP_* : ESA/SPIRE/Herschel-ATLAS/SJ Maddox



Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as “the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

Herschel-ATLAS: The Herschel ATLAS (Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey) is the largest Herschel open-time key project.  It was awarded 600 hours of Herschel observation time to survey 550 square degrees of sky in 5 bands (100um, 160um, 250um, 350um, & 500um). It is expected to detect approximately 250,000 galaxies, from the nearby Universe out to redshifts of 3 to 4, when the Universe was only around 2 billion years old.  The data used in this work, taken during the Science Demonstration Phase of the Herschel mission, covers a single 4x4 degree patch of sky, which represents about 1/30th of the total target area.  The Herschel-ATLAS survey is lead by Dr Loretta Dunne, University of Nottingham, and Professor Steve Eales, Cardiff University.

Herschel: Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA.  Since launch on May 14 2009, Herschel spent several months of performance verification, including observing optimisation and instrument calibration. This was followed by the Science Demonstration Phase: the period when the observatory capabilities were tested in full using snippets of the approved Key Programmes.

To date, the mission has gone almost perfectly.  The performance of the spacecraft has been shown to be well within pre-launch expectations, all three instruments (SPIRE, PACS and HIFI) are working extremely reliably, and the data from the Science Demonstration Phase is exceedingly promising.  Herschel is now in a routine science phase, and will continue observing until its liquid helium coolant runs out in around two and half years.  In 2009, Time Magazine voted Herschel the 7th best invention of 2009.

SPIRE: The SPIRE instrument contains an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer. The camera operates in three wavelength bands centred on 250, 350 and 500 μm, and so can make images of the sky simultaneously in three sub-millimetre “colours”.  SPIRE was designed and built by an international collaboration, led by Professor Matt Griffin of Cardiff University.

PACS: The PACS instrument also contains an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer.  The camera operates in three wavelength bands centred on 70, 100 and 160 µm. PACS was built by a consortium of institutes and university departments from across Europe, and is led by Albrecht Poglitsch of the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany.

Other datasets: The distances to the foreground galaxies in each case were measured using the W.M. Keck Observatory, the William Herschel Telescope, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and Apache Point Observatory.  The distances to the more distant background galaxies was measured with the Herschel Space Observatory, combined with the Submillimeter Array, the Max-Planck Millimeter Bolometer, the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, the Green Bank Telescope, and the Plateau de Bure Interferometer.

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More information is available from Dr Loretta Dunne on +44 (0)115 951 5132,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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Published Date
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