Keck Telescope image shows the bright elliptical lens galaxy and its Einstein ring. The sub-panels show a zoomed-in view, before and after subtraction of the bright foreground galaxy to leave the tiny background object ready for analysis. Credit: Marshall et al.
Color composite image of the gravitational lens system, made from Hubble (blue and green) and Keck (red) data. The blue ring is the tiny background galaxy, stretched by the gravitational pull of the foreground lens galaxy at the center of the image. Credit: Marshall & Treu
A tiny galaxy, nearly halfway across the universe, the smallest in size and mass known to exist at that distance, has been identified by an international team of scientists led by two from the University of California, Santa BarbaraThe scientists used data collected by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. This galaxy is about half the size, and approximately one-tenth the "weight" of the smallest distant galaxies typically observed, and it is 100 times lighter than our own Milky Way.
Even though this galaxy is more than six billion light years away, the reconstructed image is as sharp as the ordinary ground-based images of the nearest structure of galaxies, the Virgo cluster, which is 100 times closer to us," said lead author Phil Marshall, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Barbara.
Second author Tommaso Treu, assistant professor of physics at UCSB, explained that the imaging is made possible by the fact that the newly discovered galaxy is positioned behind a massive galaxy, creating an "Einstein ring." The matter distribution in the foreground bends the light rays in much the same way a magnifying glass does. By focusing the light rays, this gravitational lensing effect increases the apparent brightness and size of the background galaxy by more than a factor of 10.
Treu and his colleagues in the Sloan Lens ACS Survey (SLACS) collaboration are at forefront of the study of Einstein ring gravitational lenses. With gravitational lensing, light from distant galaxies is deflected on its way to Earth by the gravitational field of any massive object that lies in the way. Because the light bends, the galaxy is distorted into an arc or multiple separate images. When both galaxies are exactly lined up, the light forms a bull's-eye pattern, called an Einstein ring, around the foreground galaxy.
The mass estimate for the galaxy, and the inference that many of its stars have only recently formed, is made possible by the combination of optical and near infrared images from the Hubble Space Telescope with longer wavelength images obtained with the Keck Telescope. "If the galaxy is representative of a larger population, it could be one of the building blocks of today's spiral galaxies, or perhaps a progenitor of modern dwarf galaxies," said Treu. "It does look remarkably similar to the smallest galaxies in the Virgo cluster, but is almost half the way across the universe."
Another key aspect of the research is the use of "laser guide star adaptive optics." Adaptive optics systems use bright stars in the field of view to measure the Earth's atmospheric blurring and correct for it in real time. This technique relies on having a bright star in the image as well, so it is limited to a small fraction of the night sky. The laser guide star adaptive optics system in place at the Keck Telescope uses a powerful laser to illuminate the layer of sodium atoms that exist in the Earth's atmosphere, explained Jason Melbourne, a team member from the Center for Adaptive Optics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The laser image acts as an artificial star, bright enough to perform adaptive optics correction at an arbitrary position in the sky, thus enabling much sharper imaging over most of the sky. (For more on this topic see.
A galaxy (from the Greek root γαλαξίας, meaning "milky", a reference to our own Milky Way) is a massive, gravitationally bound system consisting of stars, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and dark matter. Typical galaxies range from dwarfs with as few as ten million (107) stars up to giants with one trillion (1012) stars, all orbiting a common center of mass. Galaxies can also contain many multiple star systems, star clusters, and various interstellar clouds.
Historically, galaxies have been categorized according to their apparent shape (usually referred to as their visual morphology). A common form is the elliptical galaxy, which has an ellipse-shaped light profile. Spiral galaxies are disk-shaped assemblages with curving, dusty arms. Galaxies with irregular or unusual shapes are known as peculiar galaxies, and typically result from disruption by the gravitational pull of neighbouring galaxies. Such interactions between nearby galaxies, which may ultimately result in galaxies merging, may induce episodes of significantly increased star formation, producing what is called a starburst galaxy. Small galaxies that lack a coherent structure could also be referred to as irregular galaxies
There are probably more than one hundred billion (1011) galaxies in the observable universe. Most galaxies are 1,000 to 100,000 parsecs in diameter and are usually separated by distances on the order of millions of parsecs (or megaparsecs). Intergalactic space (the space between galaxies) is filled with a tenuous gas of an average density less than one atom per cubic metre. The majority of galaxies are organized into a hierarchy of associations called clusters, which, in turn, can form larger groups called superclusters. These larger structures are generally arranged into sheets and filaments, which surround immense voids in the universe.
Although it is not yet well understood, dark matter appears to account for around 90% of the mass of most galaxies. Observational data suggests that supermassive black holes may exist at the center of many, if not all, galaxies. They are proposed to be the primary cause of active galactic nuclei found at the core of some galaxies. The Milky Way galaxy, home of Earth and the solar system, appears to harbor at least one such object within its nucleus
In 1944, Hendrik van de Hulst predicted microwave radiation at a wavelength of 21 cm, resulting from interstellar atomic hydrogen gas; this radiation was observed in 1951. The radiation allowed for much improved study of the Milky Way Galaxy, since it is not affected by dust absorption and its Doppler shift can be used to map the motion of the gas in the Galaxy. These observations led to the postulation of a rotating bar structure in the center of the Galaxy. With improved radio telescopes, hydrogen gas could also be traced in other galaxies.In the 1970s it was discovered in Vera Rubin's study of the rotation speed of gas in galaxies that the total visible mass (from stars and gas) does not properly account for the speed of the rotating gas. This galaxy rotation problem is thought to be explained by the presence of large quantities of unseen dark matter.Beginning in the 1990s, the Hubble Space Telescope yielded improved observations. Among other things, it established that the missing dark matter in our galaxy cannot solely consist of inherently faint and small stars. The Hubble Deep Field, an extremely long exposure of a relatively empty part of the sky, provided evidence that there are about one hundred and twenty five billion galaxies in the universe. Improved technology in detecting the spectra invisible to humans (radio telescopes, infra-red cameras, x-ray telescopes), allow detection of other galaxies that are not detected by Hubble. Particularly, galaxy surveys in the zone of avoidance (the region of the sky blocked by the Milky Way) have revealed a number of new galaxies
Types and morphologyGalaxies come in three main types: ellipticals, spirals, and irregulars. A slightly more extensive description of galaxy types based on their appearance is given by the Hubble sequence. Since the Hubble sequence is entirely based upon visual morphological type, it may miss certain important characteristics of galaxies such as star formation rate (in starburst galaxies) or activity in the core (in active galaxies).