lensing has become a remarkably handy tool, as astronomers are refining and
enhancing the ways they can use what has been called “nature’s telescope” to
find objects in the cosmos. Two separate studies published April 2 in the
journal Nature Astronomy describe how gravitational lensing has provided
remarkable views of different types of “extreme” stars that are normally too
far away and dim to be detected.
unique lensing events, the stars — nicknamed Icarus and Spock — have been
observed multiple times with the Hubble Space Telescope.
Lensed Star 1, the most distant star ever observed, located about 9 billion
light-years from Earth. Usually, lensing magnifies galaxies by up to 50 times,
but in this case, the star was magnified more than 2,000 times. This is the
first time a “normal” star — one that was not exploding as a supernova — has
been observed at such a great distance.
“You can see
individual galaxies out there, but this star is at least 100 times farther away
than the next individual star we can study, except for supernova explosions,”
Patrick Kelly, from the University of Minnesota, said in a statement. Kelly led
the Icarus study.
reported that the two Spock stars, named HFF14Spo-NW and HFF14Spo-SE, were seen
“twinkling,” which, the team writes, is thought to be caused by “separate
eruptions of a luminous blue variable star or a recurrent nova, or as an
unrelated pair of stellar microlensing events.”
studies, however, the brightness seen through the lensing events had one thing
in common: The gravitational lensing was caused by not just one galaxy, but a
cluster of galaxies, which can greatly enhance the effect.
gravitational lensing occurs when two galaxies happen to align with one another
along our line of sight in the sky. The gravitational field of the nearer
galaxy acts as a lens, magnifying the light coming from the stars behind them.
In the past, astronomers have used this technique to measure the shape of
stars, search for exoplanets, and measure dark matter in distant galaxies.
of the two current studies, clusters of galaxies acted as the lens, providing
extreme magnification from the gravitational field generated by multiple
found that lensed stars behind galaxy clusters should fluctuate in brightness
due to the stars in the clusters, which act as microlenses,” Kelly said in an
email to Seeker.
“So, what we need to do is take very deep observations of the
galaxy-cluster fields, and we should be able to detect the fluctuations of many
stars that are intrinsically fainter than Icarus, which we think is quite
that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope should be “terrific” for
doing just that, and astronomers are hoping to find many more lensed stars
using the telescope.
commentary about the studies, astronomer Roseanne Di Stefano from the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said these types of observations
highlight a new frontier for sky watchers.
investigations are important,” Di Stefano wrote. “Individually, and even more
so in tandem, they open up a rich field for future discoveries. They show us
that magnified stellar variability and short microlensing events can be
realistically expected from galaxies behind clusters.”
Spock stars, the team wrote that the “discovery suggests that the intersection
of strong lensing with high-cadence transient surveys may be a fruitful path
for future astrophysical transient studies.”
lensing, both teams said, is providing new views of events and processes we
would otherwise be unable to observe, since faint stars and non-supernova
stellar outbursts are not generally detectable at such great distances.
brightening is intermittent, however, because of the movement of the galaxies.
So astronomers need to determine whether the intermittent brightening is a
factor of a transient star, the movement of the galaxy clusters, or other types
light from Icarus was emitted about 4.4 billion years after the Big Bang, when
the universe was only about 30 percent of its current age. The prevalence of
galaxy clusters means this effect could be used more frequently to look deeper
into the past, and study the evolution of the earliest stars.
alignments like this all over the place, as background stars or stars in
lensing galaxies move around, offering the possibility of studying very distant
stars dating from the early universe, just as we have been using gravitational
lensing to study distant galaxies,” said University of California, Berkeley
astronomer Alex Filippenko, who participated in both studies. “For this type of
research, nature has provided us with a larger telescope than we can possibly