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UCI, other scientists find new galaxies through cosmic alignment

Herschel telescope proves surprisingly adept at detecting their deflected light

— Irvine, Calif., November 04, 2010 —

UC Irvine astronomers, along with scientists across the globe, are discovering hundreds of new galaxies through brighter galaxies in front of them that deflect their faint light back to the massive Herschel telescope. This effect, identified by Albert Einstein a century ago, is known as cosmic gravitational lensing.

“I was surprised to learn that Herschel is so good at finding these cosmic lenses,” said UCI physics & astronomy professor Asantha Cooray, lead U.S. author of a paper about the discovery in the Nov. 5 issue of the journal Science. “We took a map of the sky out there, and it turned out the brightest spots are all gravitationally magnified galaxies. It’s a whole new class of galaxies from when the universe was very young.”

The Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with significant NASA contributions, is the largest telescope in space and – to the surprise of astronomers worldwide – has proven adept at locating galactic lenses that reveal magnified galaxies. It’s capable of detecting longer-wavelength light than the human eye can – light in the far-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is exactly the type emitted by galaxies lined up behind the ones in the foreground.

“It’s just this cosmic alignment,” said Betsy Barton, UCI associate professor of physics & astronomy. “These two galaxies have nothing to do with each other. They’re very far apart, and we’re very far from both of them. The telescope just happened to be in a place where these two things are aligned.”

When such a lineup occurs, it creates a cosmic magnifying lens, with a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies bending light from the more distant galaxy into a warped and enlarged image. Sometimes, light from the farther galaxy is so distorted that it appears as a ring – called an Einstein ring because he first predicted the phenomenon. The effect is similar to what happens when you look through the bottom of a glass bottle or into a funhouse mirror.

The new galaxies are in the far reaches of outer space and are being viewed at a time when the universe was only 2 billion to 4 billion years old, less than a third of its current age. Young and bursting with new stars, the galaxies have dust so thick they cannot be seen at all with visible-light telescopes. Herschel can detect the faint warmth of the dust, however, because it glows at far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths. With these galaxies magnified, astronomers can dig deep into their dusty reaches to learn more about how the universe was created.

“It’s a hugely important component in our understanding of when stars formed and what size galaxies were when that happened,” said Barton.

The Science paper – whose lead author is Mattia Negrello of Britain’s Open University – reports that five new galaxies were found, but astronomers suspect they’ve just scratched the surface. “We can probably pick out hundreds of new lensed galaxies in the Herschel data,” said Paul Goldsmith, the U.S. project scientist for Herschel at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Cooray, in fact, estimates that 200 more have been discovered since the article went to press, all awaiting confirmation by ground-based telescopes.

Numerous telescopes around the world helped verify the initial findings, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and three telescopes in Hawaii at the W.M. Keck Observatory, the California Institute of Technology’s Submillimeter Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Submillimeter Array.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is a top-ranked university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UCI is among the most dynamic campuses in the University of California system, with nearly 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, 1,100 faculty and 9,000 staff. Orange County’s largest employer, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3.9 billion. For more UCI news, visit www.today.uci.edu.

News Radio: UCI maintains on campus an ISDN line for conducting interviews with its faculty and experts. Use of this line is available for a fee to radio news programs/stations that wish to interview UCI faculty and experts. Use of the ISDN line is subject to availability and approval by the university.

Asantha Cooray
Michelle S. Kim / University Communications
UCI astronomer Asantha Cooray in front of an image of galaxies he helped unearth with the Herschel telescope.
Betsy Barton
Michelle S. Kim / University Communications
UCI astronomer Betsy Barton, co-author, says the findings will further understanding of how stars form.

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