Sometimes in astronomy, never-before-seen phenomena are predicted years before they are observed. Using Hubble to observe one of the Frontier Fields, astronomers spotted such an event in November 2014. Light from a distant, dying, massive star, known as a supernova, was observed in four locations on the sky due to the light-bending effects of gravitational lensing. This is just over 50 years after a Norwegian astronomer, Sjur Refsdal, predicted this phenomenon in 1964. To honor this pioneering astronomer’s prediction, the supernova has been named supernova Refsdal.
The lumpy cosmic lens
After the light left the distant supernova, it traversed the cosmos until it reached the gravitational influence of the massive galaxy cluster MACS J1149. The extreme mass of MACS J1149, most of which is in the form of invisible dark matter, curves or bends space. Light generally follows a straight line, but in the presence of curved space light will follow the curvature. Much like the way a glass lens redirects and amplifies light, gravitational lensing from the curvature of space also redirects and amplifies the light from distant objects. We observe the four images of the same supernova on different parts of the sky because the light from that supernova took slightly varying paths to reach us. Some of the light from the supernova was originally traveling in directions that would never reach Hubble’s mirror, but the curvature of space redirected those light paths towards the telescope.
But wait, it gets even stranger!
The light from the distant supernova is traversing various paths through the curved space of MACS J1149. Those paths have slightly different lengths. The light from the four observed images of the same supernova traveled for about 9.3 billion years, only to arrive at Hubble’s mirror a mere days or weeks apart.
That is not all. The four observed images of the supernova appear on just one of multiple gravitationally lensed images of the background host spiral galaxy. That particular image of the distant spiral galaxy happens to fall directly behind an elliptical galaxy that is a member of the MACS J1149 galaxy cluster (the yellow-white elliptical shape in the center of the inset image above). The elliptical galaxy further lenses the supernova into the four versions we observe. This is a commonly observed effect of gravitational lensing that depends on the observer’s view of the gravitationally lensed light, and is often referred to as an Einstein Cross.
But there are additional lensed versions of the distant host spiral galaxy in the image. Did we observe the same supernova in those other lensed versions of the host galaxy? Astronomers believe we may have missed the supernova from one of the lensed versions of the host galaxy by about 20 years. Due to the curvature of space, its path was slightly shorter. However, they expect that we should observe the supernova in another lensed version of the host spiral galaxy some time within the next five years. The image and accompanying video, below, highlight the varying light travel times of supernova Refsdal.
The video above illustrates the varying light-travel times of the distant supernova as the light traverses around the lumpy space within the galaxy cluster MACS J1149. Credit: NASA, ESA, Ann Field and G. Bacon (STScI).
Probing a galaxy cluster’s dark matter
These observations are not just a validation of some obscure prediction in the scientific literature. Computer models of the mass distribution of MACS J1149, particularly the mass in the form of dark matter, are providing the estimated arrival times of the various supernova light paths. Further study and analysis of the supernova Refsdal light paths will allow for the improvement of those models and a better understanding of the distribution of dark matter throughout MACS J1149. In addition to a better understanding of how dark matter is distributed in galaxy clusters, these results will provide astronomers studying this Frontier Field with a better tool to confirm the distances to far-away lensed galaxies.
Building upon a historic scientific legacy
This is a fortuitous time in astronomy and for the Hubble Space Telescope. The paper describing supernova Refsdal, led by Dr. Patrick Kelly of the University of California, Berkeley, is being released this month in a special issue of the journal Science. This special issue of Science is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity — the very theory that led to the prediction that distant supernovae could be gravitationally lensed by foreground galaxies or galaxy clusters. In addition to this confluence of events, it is also Hubble’s 25th anniversary. It is not lost on astronomers that it took many years and many people, including the brave astronauts of five servicing missions, to repair Hubble and upgrade Hubble’s instruments in order for such a discovery to take place. The new technology on Hubble is truly enabling ground-breaking science to this day.
Dr. Lawton would like to thank Dr. Patrick Kelly (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr. Steve Rodney (Johns Hopkins University) for help in creating the content for this post. Supernova Refsdal was discovered using data from the Grism Lens Amplified Survey from Space (GLASS) Hubble program. Follow-up Hubble observations from the Frontier supernova (FrontierSN) team confirmed that the light observed was from a supernova.
You can learn more about this amazing discovery on the recent Hubble Hangout.