Dec. 9, 2010 A new image shows how the light from a quasar billions of light years away is bent around a foreground galaxy by the curvature of space. This light has been traveling for 9 billion years before it reached the Earth. The quasar is a galaxy powered by a super-massive black hole, leading to the ejection of jets of matter moving at almost the speed of light.
This dramatic image is the first to be produced by e-MERLIN, a powerful new array of radio telescopes linked across the UK.
Spearheaded by the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the e-MERLIN telescope will allow astronomers to address key questions relating to the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets.
To demonstrate its capabilities, University of Manchester astronomers turned the new telescope array toward the "Double Quasar." This enigmatic object, first discovered by Jodrell Bank, is a famous example of Einstein's theory of gravity in action.
The new image shows how the light from a quasar billions of light years away is bent around a foreground galaxy by the curvature of space. This light has been travelling for 9 billion years before it reached the Earth. The quasar is a galaxy powered by a super-massive black hole, leading to the ejection of jets of matter moving at almost the speed of light -- one of which can be seen arcing to the left in this new e-MERLIN image.
The warping of space results in a 'gravitational lens' producing multiple images of the same quasar -- the two brightest of these lensed images can be seen here as two bright objects, one below the other. The foreground galaxy whose mass is responsible for the lensing effect is also visible just above the lower quasar image. The radio emission seen in the e-MERLIN image suggests that this galaxy also harbours a black hole, albeit somewhat smaller.
The UK's national facility for radio astronomy, e-MERLIN is now set to produce increasingly-detailed radio images of stars and galaxies using seven telescopes spread up to 220 km apart across the UK and working as one. This combination of widely-spread telescopes provides astronomers with a powerful 'zoom lens' with which they can study the fine details of astronomical events out towards the edge of the observable universe.
The radio signals collected by the telescopes are brought back to Jodrell Bank using a new optical fibre network. These fibre links and advanced electronic receivers will allow astronomers to collect far more data and so see in a single day what would have previously taken them more than a year of observations.
In parallel with this successful demonstration of the new telescope system, work has begun on 'early science' observations intended to rigorously test its capabilities. The project has attracted astronomers from over 100 institutes across the world who will use e-MERLIN to study a huge range of astrophysics. This includes star birth and death, black holes and galaxy evolution, pulsars (the collapsed cores of exploded stars) and young planets forming around nearby stars.
The e-MERLIN project has been funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Northwest Development Agency, The University of Manchester, The University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University. It is being operated by STFC and the University of Manchester.
Professor Mike Garrett, General Director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, said, "As a pathfinder for the next-generation international radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, e-MERLIN represents another giant leap forward for the global radio astronomy community."
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