The Webb Telescope will use this epic cosmic device to reveal hidden wonders

The universe Reveal hidden objects when gravity acts like a giant magnifying glass. State-of-the-art observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) can harness these cosmic gifts to make exciting discoveries.

Cosmic leviathans, like the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 in the first JWST image, can bend space-time with their enormous gravitational influence. They distort the medium through which light travels, so objects in the fainter corners of the Universe sometimes don’t appear as they really are. But that’s a good thing; they may appear larger and help astronomers who study them.

JWST already has a cryogenic cooler and a five-layer sunshield for its infrared instruments to collect the faintest heat signatures in the Universe. When combined with a natural telescope of a massive object, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, they can perform an epic relay race over billions of years, bringing the farthest light in the Universe to our eyes.

Discovering gravitational lenses

In 1979, a team led by astronomer Dennis Walsh discovered gravitational lensing when they noticed two points of light with identical characteristics.

“Difficulties arise in describing them as two distinct objects,” Walsh and colleagues wrote. They had seen the huge galaxy YGKOW G1, located about 4 billion light-years from Earth, distort and magnify the light of a quasar more than three times farther out in space. Since then, astronomers have found other gravitational lenses and continue to search for more. They will use nature’s trick to study an invisible substance called dark matter and hope that magnification may reveal the light of the cosmic dawn.

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“I think lensing will be the key to discovering the first galaxies with JWST, because there are so many small, faint galaxies in the early Universe that lensing is bringing into view,” Dan Coe, an astronomer at Space Telescope Science. Institute, Inverse account.

A Hubble image of QSO 0957+561, the “double quasar” that led to the discovery of gravitational lensing. The single light source appears twice in the center of this image. ESA/Hubble and NASA

An eccentric cosmic tool

Mass bends space-time, the medium through which light travels. Warp features are a useful, if indirect, way for researchers to investigate things like dark matter that you can’t see. “Strong gravitational lensing now allows researchers to address questions about the distribution of matter, both dark and light, within galaxy clusters and individual galaxies, that cannot be addressed in any other way,” astronomer Nicolas Tessore wrote in a 2016 article on Royal Astronomical Society Monthly Notices.

Although there are objects like fuzzy galaxies that have little or no dark matter, the mysterious substance is thought to be a crucial component in holding galaxies together. The collective heaviness of dark matter affects bright objects around it, so when it produces gravitational lensing, astronomers can map the dark matter.

Gravitational lensing, especially powerful ones, can also help JWST, the iconic Hubble Space Telescope, and the upcoming WFIRST mission look further and further back than ever before, to the earliest chapters of the cosmos. “Strong lenses,” Tessore writes, “also allow astronomers to detect some of the most distant objects ever seen and to study galaxy formation in the cosmic dawn.” To that end, astronomers may conduct large-scale imaging surveys of the night sky to locate many more such lenses in the future.

In this illustration, the Hubble Space Telescope (lower left) views a distant galaxy through the gravitational lens of a massive object in the center of the sky. NASA and ESA

Unknown planets may also appear.

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JWST and WFIRST could use a distortion called microlensing to find alien worlds smaller than Earth. When NASA officials described the recent discovery of the exoplanet OGLE-2016-BLG-1195Lb, they noted that “currently available ground-based telescopes cannot find planets smaller than this using the microlensing method.”

According to The Planetary Society, an exoplanet can reveal itself through microlensing when it clips the light from a star that is focusing on another star from our perspective, causing its double view of the distant object to briefly turn into three. The organization says that this effect, which can be measured as an increase in brightness lasting a few hours or days, is the only way to detect exoplanets in other galaxies.

How Gravitational Lenses Work

The most useful gravitational lensing occurs when a celestial body with light-bending gravity is sandwiched almost equally in space between the target and Earth.

“The best lens effect occurs when your lens is halfway between you and the distant object,” says Coe. “It’s similar to if you’re holding a magnifying glass. If you put it right at eye level, then you’re not going to magnify things as much. If you put it at the height of the object, the same. But if it’s, you know, in the middle, then you get a nice raise.”

That’s what makes the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 so special. The huge entity is located in the middle of the First JWST Deep Field. The thousands of galaxies that call it home collectively bend and distort light from more distant structures to enhance them. SMACS 0723 even stretched the light from a spiral galaxy to produce a mirage resembling a sea slug.

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These high distortion producers are rare. They must be massive enough to deflect the background light as they align with the distant object so that the former’s gravitational field can manipulate the light to an effect on Earth’s eyes. A change of perspective changes what, if anything, gets the contortion.

Coe explains that there is a “trade off” with gravitational lensing. “With lenses, you’re magnifying a smaller area. Instead of getting the full area of ​​that image, you get a smaller area that you’re showing.”

“The magnification allows you to see fainter galaxies than ever before,” says Coe. “They are competitive effects, and sometimes one wins and sometimes another wins.”

But Coe and others don’t mind seeing fewer galaxies, because the ones that do appear are special.

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