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Oct 17, 2013 04:16 PM EDT

Scientists Discover Most Distant Gravitational Lens Ever Recorded in Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance Spotting

Milky Way Galaxy
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech) An artist's interpretation of the Milky Way Galaxy based on ESO VISTA survey telescope data.

An international team of astronomers has spotted the farthest known gravitational lens and, as Albert Einstein predicted, it is a galaxy that deflects and intensifies the light of a much further object.

According to a press release, the scientists now have a rare chance to measure the mass of a vastly distant galaxy. The chances of this kind of alignment were also extremely slim, but the scientists theorized it was because they had underestimated the amount of infant galaxies existing in the universe.

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The first gravitational lens was found in 1979 and since several others have appeared. Because light is affected by gravity, when it passes by a distant galaxy, it will be deflected and intensified, just like Einstein's general theory of relativity states.

"The discovery was completely by chance. I had been reviewing observations from an earlier project when I noticed a galaxy that was decidedly odd," said study lead author Arjen van der Wel, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany. "It looked like an extremely young galaxy, but it seemed to be at a much larger distance than expected. It shouldn't even have been part of our observing program."

 

The center light is the deflection made by the distant galaxy. Photo: NASA/ESA/A. van der Wel.
The center light is the deflection made by the distant galaxy. Photo: NASA/ESA/A. van der Wel.

 

 

Van der Wel and his colleagues will also be able to determine the galaxy's mass, as it is using its gravitational pull to bend the light. The light acts as a "natural telescope" because it illuminates the objects background, giving the astronomers a more detailed view of what they are looking at.

The research team has concluded that after being deflected, the light has traveled 9.4 billion years to reach our view, easily making the distant galaxy the farthest gravitational lens ever observed.

While the researchers do believe there are more galaxies like this in existence, the chance sighting of this one was just that. They have estimated the galaxy is both light (less than 100 million solar masses) and very young (10-40 million years old), making the chances of spotting it very small.

"This has been a weird and interesting discovery," van der Wel said. "It was a completely serendipitous find, but it has the potential to start a new chapter in our description of galaxy evolution in the early Universe."

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