An observation that is very rare today, but which could become much more common thanks to the exceptional performance of the telescope.
The James Webb Space Telescope has recently shown itself with a remarkable new image; he surprised impressively with a galaxy whose glow took 12 billion years to reach us. What makes it interesting is that it appears to us in a rather particular form, namely an almost perfect Einstein ring.
This is not the first time this galaxy, dubbed SPT-S J041839-4751.8, has been photographed. The venerable Hubble and even the Webb have already drawn his portrait several times. But recently, the JWST looked back on it to examine it with another instrument, namely its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
According to ScienceAlert, the raw data has since been published on the MAST portal. They were then recovered by Spaceguy44, a resident of the Reddit platform who also happens to be a doctoral student in astronomy. He compiled these elements to produce a nice composite image spotted by ScienceAlert; it highlights the most striking feature of this little corner of the sky, namely Einstein’s famous ring.
What is an Einstein ring?
In the middle of the image, we can see a source of light which seems to be enclosed in the middle of a strange circular halo. They are in fact two very distinct galaxies and very far from each other.
The blue dot in the center of this structure corresponds to the galaxy closest to us. The second is located far behind, but exactly on the same axis — a bit like the Moon and the Sun during a total eclipse, but at a much greater distance.
One would therefore expect the second, namely SPT-S J041839-4751.8, to be completely hidden by the first. However, it is clearly visible; it even appears as an almost perfect circle. And to understand the origin of this phenomenon, we must quickly look at general relativity formalized by Einstein – hence its name.
This theory states that objects generate a gravitational influence proportional to their mass. In the case of extremely massive objects such as galaxies, this generates a significant deformation of space-time in the vicinity of the celestial body in question.
And when light passes through this perimeter, its trajectory is deviated so as to follow the curvature of space-time. A finding that gave Einstein food for thought; in his works which paved the way for general relativity, we indeed find a mention of a “gravitational lens”.
A “lens” on a galactic scale
In optics, a lens is a transparent device whose surfaces have a carefully calibrated curvature. They make it possible to manipulate the trajectory of light rays with great precision thanks to the phenomenon of refraction.
Functionally speaking, gravitational lenses are quite similar to physical lenses; although they involve different physical principles, astronomers can also use them to observe otherwise invisible objects with a good level of precision. It is because of this phenomenon that SPT-S J041839-4751.8 appears to us as a very visible and well-defined circle.
Note that this term should be taken with a grain of salt because of a very important difference; unlike a standard lens, a gravitational lens does not have a focal point, but a focal axis. This means that the distance between the telescope, the “lens” and the object to be observed does not matter in this case.
But this is still a very rare observation, and for good reason; all the same, the three objects must be perfectly alignedwhich is quite unlikely given the distances involved. Einstein himself believed that it would be impossible to get close enough to the center line, and that we would probably never have an instrument with sufficient resolution for the observe… but the JWST decided otherwise!
And without this gravitational lensing effect, SPT-S J041839-4751.8. would probably indistinguishable ; at best, it would take the form of a tiny point of light from which it would be difficult to extract any meaningful data.
Anyway, it’s a new image that comes to garnish the already well-stocked hunting table of the JWST. And given the outstanding contributions this engineering marvel has already given us in just a few short months, it’s entirely possible that sightings of Einstein’s rings will become more frequent in the future.