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"Since about 1978, astronomers probably have found about 200 gravitational lensing events, but that involved a very slow search through lots and lots of data," said Asantha Cooray, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of California in Irvine. He and dozens of other scientists from around the world collaborated on a recent project to make the process faster.
Largest space mirror
Using data collected by the Herschel Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey (Herschel‑ATLAS) the team of researchers have demonstrated a way to quickly and easily find strong gravitational lensing events with close to 100 percent efficiency.
Herschel is a European Space Agency (ESA) mission with significant participation from NASA. It was launched in May of 2009, and now orbits a distant point about 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth on the opposite side of our planet from the sun.
Because Herschel's mirror is the largest astronomy mirror ever launched in space (3.5 meters, or about 11.5 feet across), it can take the sharpest pictures to date at the wavelengths it detects.
"Herschel-ATLAS is aimed at understanding how stars form inside galaxies and to shed some light on the past history of galaxy growth," said Cooray who is now the lead US (NASA) investigator for Herschel-ATLAS. Cooray is supported by a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The Tau Zero Foundation is continuing to advocate Claudio Maccone’s FOCAL mission, which would be the first attempt to get a spacecraft to our own Sun’s gravitational lens. In a recent visit, Maccone and I discussed the paper on FOCAL he had delivered at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague. Just as EPOXI’s second cometary pass has shown us how much a spacecraft’s mission can be extended by intelligent marshaling of its resources, so a mission to 550 AU offers up an entirely new set of observations as the vehicle continues to move outward from the Sun. These observations would be progressively more difficult, but they are worth examining for a potential mission trajectory into interstellar space.
For Maccone realized that even as observations of the Sun’s gravitational focus proceeded, a successor to the FOCAL spacecraft could, as it pushed ever deeper into space, tap the lenses of individual planets. The question of planetary gravitational lenses has come up on Centauri Dreams before, and Maccone has now gone into the specifics. If we must reach a minimum of 550 AU to make use of the Sun’s lens, how far do we travel to tap the lenses of the planets?
A Widening Series of Focal Spheres
While the presence of any mass bends the path of light passing near it, this effect rarely produces the giant arcs and multiple images associated with strong gravitational lensing. Most lines of sight in the universe are thoroughly in the weak lensing regime, in which the deflection is impossible to detect in a single background source. However, even in these cases, the presence of the foreground mass can be detected, by way of a systematic alignment of background sources around the lensing mass. Weak gravitational lensing is thus an intrinsically statistical measurement, but it provides a way to measure the masses of astronomical objects without requiring assumptions about their composition or dynamical state.