Edwin Hubble Expands Our View of the Universe

by Donna Weaver and Ann Jenkins

American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (1889–1953) never lived to see the development or launch of his namesake, the Hubble Space Telescope. But like the telescope that bears his name, Dr. Hubble played a crucial role in advancing the field of astronomy and changing the way we view the universe. As Hubble’s namesake is breaking new ground in the exploration of the distant universe via the Frontier Fields, let us take a step back and learn more about Hubble, the man.

This is an illustration of Dr. Edwin Powell Hubble.

Edwin Hubble is regarded as one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century. Illustration credit: Kathy Cordes of STScI.

As a young boy, Edwin Hubble read tales of traveling to undersea cities, journeying to the center of the Earth, and trekking to the remote mountains of South Africa. These stories by adventure novelists Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard stoked young Hubble’s imagination of faraway places. He fulfilled those childhood dreams as an astronomer, exploring distant galaxies with a telescope and developing celestial theories that revolutionized astronomy.

But Hubble didn’t settle immediately on the astronomy profession. He studied law as a Rhodes Scholar at Queens College in Oxford, England. A year after passing the bar exam, Hubble realized that his love of exploring the stars was greater than his attraction to law, so he abandoned law for astronomy. “I chucked the law for astronomy and I knew that, even if I were second rate or third rate, it was astronomy that mattered,” Hubble said. (1)

Our Galaxy Is Not Alone

He studied astronomy at the University of Chicago and completed his doctoral thesis in 1917. After serving in World War I, he began working at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Calif., studying the faint patches of luminous “fog” or nebulae — the Latin word for clouds — in the night sky. Hubble and other astronomers were puzzled by these gas clouds and wanted to know what they were.

Using the 100-inch reflecting Hooker Telescope — the largest telescope of its day — Hubble peered beyond our Milky Way Galaxy to study an object known then as the Andromeda Nebula. He discovered special, “variable stars” on the outskirts of the nebula that changed in brightness over time. These stars brightened and dimmed in a predictable way that allowed Hubble to determine their distances from Earth. Hubble showed that the distance to the nebula was so great that it had to be outside the Milky Way Galaxy. Hubble realized that the Andromeda Nebula was a separate galaxy much like our own. The discovery of the Andromeda Galaxy helped change our understanding of the universe by proving the existence of other galaxies.

Hubble also devised the classification system for galaxies, grouping them by sizes and shapes, that astronomers still use today. He also obtained extensive evidence that the laws of physics outside our galaxy are the same as on Earth, verifying the principle of the uniformity of nature.

The Expanding Universe

As Hubble continued his study, he made another startling discovery: The universe is expanding. In 1929 he determined that the more distant the galaxy is from Earth, the faster it appears to move away. Known as Hubble’s Law, this discovery is the foundation of the Big Bang theory. The theory says that the universe began after a huge cosmic explosion and has been expanding ever since. Hubble’s discovery is considered one of the greatest triumphs of 20th-century astronomy.

Albert Einstein could have foretold Hubble’s discovery in 1917 when he applied his newly developed General Theory of Relativity to the universe. His theory — that space is curved by gravity — predicted that the universe could not be static but had to expand or contract. Einstein found this prediction so unbelievable that he modified his original theory to avoid the problem. Upon learning of Hubble’s discovery, Einstein immediately regretted revising his theory.

For his many contributions to astronomy, Hubble is regarded as one of the most important observational cosmologists of the 20th century.

(1) As quoted by Nicholas U. Mayall (1970). Biographical memoir. Volume 41, Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences (U.S.). National Academy of Sciences. p. 179.

Frontier Fields Public Lecture

Want to hear about the Frontier Fields project straight from the scientist? On August 5, 2014, principal investigator Dr. Jennifer Lotz gave a public lecture entitled “The Frontier Fields: a Sneak Peek at the First Billion Years of the Universe” and the recorded webcast is available at the link below.

Dr. Jennifer Lotz
The Frontier Fields: a Sneak Peek at the First Billion Years of the Universe

August 5, 2014

How we far can we go? What are the faintest objects the Hubble Space Telescope can possibly see? Can we get a sneak peek at the early universe before the James Webb Space Telescope is launched? These are the key questions we hope to answer with the Frontier Fields campaign. Over this three year program, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute will attempt to push the Hubble Space Telescope’s capabilities to its limits. This ambitious effort will combine the power of Hubble with the natural gravitational telescopes of massive clusters of galaxies that magnify more distant galaxies. Hubble will obtain the deepest ever optical and infrared images of six massive clusters, in parallel with the deep images of six neighboring “blank” fields. These observations will reveal galaxies about 10-20 times fainter than any previously seen, allowing astronomers to study the birth of galaxies like our own Milky Way.

https://webcast.stsci.edu/webcast/detail.xhtml?talkid=4287

This lecture is part of the monthly public lecture series at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Each month addresses a different cosmic topic, usually related to Hubble, but always venturing to some fascinating part of the universe. For more information, check out the web page on HubbleSite:  http://hubblesite.org/about_us/public_talks/

 

Seeing Double (or More!) in Frontier Fields Images

The immense gravity in this foreground galaxy cluster, Abell 2744, warps space to brighten and magnify images of far-more-distant background galaxies as they looked over 12 billion years ago, not long after the big bang.  This is the first of the Frontier Fields to be imaged.

Galaxy cluster Abell 2744, the first of the Frontier Fields to be imaged.

Take a long look at this image. You’re seeing a lot of distant galaxies magnified by the natural “gravitational lens” of galaxy cluster Abell 2744. But you aren’t seeing as many as you think.

Gravitational lenses, natural magnifiers created in space when light is bent by the enormous mass of galaxy clusters, distort and enlarge the images of distant galaxies behind the cluster. But they do more than that: sometimes they replicate them, like multiple images in a funhouse mirror.

abell multiple

Galaxy cluster Abell 2744, with multiple images of individual galaxies marked. These multiple images are produced by the cluster’s gravitational lens.

In the above image, we’ve marked the galaxies that are actually images of the same galaxy by overlaying them with numbered triangles. Each galaxy has a number. The multiple images are identified by letters. The galaxies labeled 1a, 1b, and 1 c, for instance, are one galaxy, its image repeated three times. (Only numbers and letters are significant. The colors don’t represent anything, but are used to make it easier to distinguish the various numbered galaxies.)

In previous posts, we explained that mass distorts space. Light from a distant galaxy follows space’s curve like a ball rolling along a putting green. (Think of space as a miniature golf course with fewer animatronic dinosaurs.)

Sometimes, the level of distortion sends the light to multiple places. If you’ve ever seen a single candle reflected multiple times in the bottom of a wineglass, you’ve seen this distorting effect occur in lenses. In fact, gravitational lensing is so similar to glass lensing that you could replicate the distortions of a gravitational lens by grinding a glass lens to the same proportions and bumps.

And cosmic lenses are quite lumpy. The galaxies of the cluster, embedded in halos of dark matter, create bumps of mass. Light can take multiple paths around the galaxy cluster as it encounters the distortions in space-time created by the cluster’s mass. The closer the light of more-distant galaxies passes to the lens, the stronger the deflection. If the light passes close enough to the lens, these multiple images are likely to appear. The individual galaxies in the cluster also add small deflections, and occasionally help produce multiple paths for the light to reach us.

When astronomers look at a lensed image, they’re looking at a giant puzzle. They need to figure out where all the mass is in the image – most of it, being dark matter, is invisible. Pinpointing the multiple images of identical galaxies helps accomplish this because they’re a good indicator of how dramatically the light is being deflected.

Abell2744-multilens-1+markers Abell2744-multilens-3+markers

Some of the multiple images are obvious. Galaxy images 1a, 1b and 1c (left image) are good examples – they’re blue galaxies with red centers, and they look very like one another. The green-hued galaxy identified by 3a, 3b and 3c (right image) is another good example. Astronomers seek out those obvious candidates to start with, then try to build a model of how the mass in the cluster is distributed. Based on that model, they start identifying the multiple images that aren’t so obvious: Does this reddish galaxy to the side have a counterpart where the model says it should be? Analysis of attributes like color, and especially distance, also play an important role in determining which galaxies are multiples — a technique that comes in handy in many situations.

Thanks to reader Judy Schmidt for the idea for this post.

 

Gravitational Lensing in Action

In my previous blog post, Visual “Proof” of General Relativity, I discussed how gravitational lensing demonstrates the effects of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in a direct, visual manner. Images created by gravitational lenses show features that are not possible in Newton’s version of gravity.

Although seeing general relativity with your own eyes is kinda awesome, there’s one unsatisfying aspect: you only see the result, not the process. Since you don’t know exactly what those galaxies looked like before the gravitational lensing, it is hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of the distortions. We have no on/off switch for the mass of the galaxy cluster to be able to examine the un-lensed image and compare against the lensed one.

lensing_sim_trio-1600x550

A simulation of gravitational lensing by a cluster of galaxies (click on image for larger version). The galaxies of cluster Abell 2744 (left) are inserted into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (right) to produce the combined image with gravitational lensing (center).

But we can demonstrate the process of gravitational lensing through scientific visualization. The images above show a simulation of gravitational lensing by a galaxy cluster. On the left is an image of only the galaxies that belong to galaxy cluster Abell 2744; all of the foreground and background objects have been removed. On the right is a deep field image of galaxies. In the center is a simulation of how the galaxies of Abell 2744 would distort the galaxy images in the deep field.

By carefully comparing galaxy images between the right and center panels, one can see how the un-lensed galaxies transform to their distorted lensed versions.  The elongated streaks and arcs in the center image generally come from compact, ellipse-shaped galaxies in the right image. But not all galaxies are changed, a fact easily seen by examining the larger, yellow galaxy in the lower right.

The explanation comes from the details of the simulated lensing. The deep field used above is a portion of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), and includes only galaxies for which we have a good measure of their distance. Using those distances and the distance to Abell 2744, we were able to place the galaxies of Abell 2744 at their correct positions within the deep field. HUDF galaxies which are closer than the galaxy cluster would not be lensed, and appear the same in the right and center images. Only those galaxies behind the cluster were transformed by the simulated lensing. Thus, the central image provides a proper simulation of what would be seen if Abell 2744 suddenly wandered across the sky and ended up in the middle of the HUDF.

I note that all of the background galaxies were combined into a single image at a set distance behind the cluster for simplicity. The full, and rather tedious, 3D calculation could have been performed, but was deemed unlikely to provide a significant visual difference for a public-level illustration. I further note that it is an occupational hazard of being a scientist that one feels compelled to provide such full-disclosure details.

The really difficult challenge is to do the reverse of this simulation. Start with an image of gravitational lensing and then work out the mass distribution of the galaxy cluster from the distribution of streaks and arcs. But, hey, no one said being an astrophysicist was easy.

In the final part of this series of blog posts, I’ll provide a more down-to-earth example of gravitational lensing.

 

Visual “Proof” of General Relativity

In a previous blog post, “Einstein’s Crazy Idea“, I discussed how Einstein’ s theory of general relativity is a reinterpretation of gravity. Newton’s original idea of gravity visualized it as a force between massive objects. Einstein instead surmised that the presence of mass warps space, and that curved space-time produces the motions we attribute to gravity. Earth’s orbit around the Sun is either a curved path through flat space (Newton) or a straight path through curved space (Einstein).

Both ideas of gravity produce the same observed motions for most cases. But there are a number of situations, generally involving very strong gravitational effects, where general relativity explains phenomena that gravitational forces get slightly wrong. The differences are often subtle and take quite a lot of explanation to appreciate. However, one example is visually obvious: gravitational lensing.

Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689

Hubble image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689, showing a large number of lensed arcs (click on the image for larger version). These arcs are distorted images of background galaxies, gravitationally lensed by the mass of the cluster.

The above image of galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is a prime example of gravitational lensing. Throughout the image are numerous small arcs, streaks, and strange-looking objects. Most of these are relatively normal galaxies (a few really are just strange-looking objects), whose images have been stretched and twisted by the galaxy cluster and general relativity.

The combined mass of the thousands of galaxies in the cluster (and their associated dark matter – a topic discussed in the What is Dark Matter? blog post) heavily distorts the space-time around the cluster. Light from more distant galaxies passes through that warped space. The images of those distant galaxies become distorted as if they were being seen through an odd-shaped glass lens. In fact, the physics of light redirection using gravity is entirely analogous to that using lenses. It is the optics of complex lenses, but using mass instead of glass.

Newton’s gravity can not produce such gravitational lensing. Well, to be complete, a gravitational force could produce half of the lensing effect of general relativity, but only if one assumes that photons (i.e., particles of light) have mass. Modern physics considers photons to be massless particles, and hence gravitational lensing does not exist in Newton’s version of gravity, only in Einstein’s general relativity.

For that reason, I like to say that pictures of gravitational lensing are visual “proof” of general relativity. You don’t have to delve into the astronomy, physics, or complex mathematics — just examine the image. Such distortions arise from general relativity.

Now, the visual distortions may be easy to spot, but that’s not to say that these images are easy to interpret. Just the opposite is true. I’ll provide some examples of the complexities of understanding gravitational lensing in my next blog post.

Einstein’s Crazy Idea

Total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919

One of the original plates from the 1919 solar eclipse used to measure the effects of general relativity. Click the image for a larger version, and note the horizontal lines that mark stars that were used for the measurements.

General relativity is just plain weird.

The basic idea of gravity we are taught in school comes from Isaac Newton’s “Principia” in 1687. Gravity is a force exerted by objects with mass. The greater the mass, the greater the gravitational force. The larger the distance between objects, the lesser the force ( it decreases with the square of the distance). The gravity of the Sun pulls on Earth and holds it, along with the other planets, asteroids, comets, etc., in orbit.

Not so, according to Albert Einstein in 1915. He came up with a completely new, and quite radical, alternative explanation.

Einstein’s crazy idea is that the presence of mass warps the fabric of space around it. Then, that warped space controls the motion of other masses nearby. Newton’s idea of a gravitational force is thus replaced with four-dimensional space-time geometry. Planets orbiting around stars, and stars traveling through galaxies — these are space-time distortions moving within other space-time distortions. As one famous description puts it: mass tells space how to warp, while warped space tells mass how to move. Yeah, weird.

On the face of it, Isaac and Albert are just describing the same phenomenon from two different points of view: the former sees a force, while the latter sees geometric distortions. And, since the algebraic equations of the gravitational force are so, so, so, so, so very much simpler than the tensor calculus of general relativity, why go to all the relativistic trouble?

The answer is that there are certain situations, generally involving very large masses, where Newton’s gravity is demonstrably wrong. The most famous of these is the precession of the perihelion of Mercury.

The orbit of Mercury is not fixed in space. Each time Mercury orbits the Sun, its orbit rotates by a minuscule amount. The position when Mercury is closest to the Sun, called perihelion, is used to measure this orbit rotation, called precession. While Newton’s gravity predicts a precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the measured value is significantly higher. This mismatch between prediction and observation is resolved by Einstein’s general relativity in that the warping of space at such a close distance to the Sun produces a slightly stronger precession than gravitational force.

The other famous demonstration of general relativity is the bending of light as it passes a massive object. Light rays also have their paths changed by passing through warped space. A total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, served to test this effect. During the eclipse, astronomers could see stars whose light had passed close to the Sun. Their apparent position on the sky would be shifted from their normal position due to passage through the warped space around the Sun. By observing the precise positions of such stars both before and during the eclipse, astronomers measured the effects of general relativity. (See the image accompanying this post.)

Those 1919 observations did much to confirm that this crazy idea of general relativity reflected the reality of the universe. We now have many tests of general relativity. Most are subtle and require significant explanation. However,  there is one that is visually striking, and which is critical to the scientific underpinnings of the Frontier Fields project. I’ll address that in my next blog post ( Visual “Proof” of General Relativity ).

 

Searching for Cosmic Dawn

Today’s guest post is by Hubble Space Telescope astrophysicist Dr. Jennifer Lotz.

How deep can we go? What is the faintest — and possibly most distant — galaxy we can see now with the Hubble Space Telescope? This is the challenge taken up by the Frontier Fields, a new campaign to see deeper into the universe than ever before.

It is thrilling to push past the limits of our knowledge of the universe. But the Frontier Fields are motivated by more than record-breaking. With a great deal of effort, Hubble is starting to capture light from galaxies that shows them as they appeared in the first few hundred million years of the universe. Sometime between the Big Bang — more than 13 billion years ago —  and today, the Universe evolved from a hot, smooth sea of protons, electrons, and dark matter to a collection of billions of individual galaxies separated from each other by vast regions of mostly empty space. Within our own Milky Way galaxy are billions of stars forming out of clouds of gas, with planets surrounding almost every star. How did these “billions upon billions” come to be?

Because the speed of light is finite, astronomy is the only science in which it is possible to look back in time and directly observe the formation of galaxies and stars. The farther away an object is, the longer it takes for its light to reach us. Therefore, we see very distant objects as they were in the past — sometimes billions of years in the past. We call this “look-back time.”

Very distant galaxies with look-back times of 13 billion years or more appear very, very faint. Just how faint? The faintest objects that the Hubble Space Telescope has seen are galaxies whose light we have collected by looking a one small piece of sky for hundreds of hours — the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Those objects are some 4 billion times fainter than the faintest star the human eye can see.

But it turns out that this may not be faint enough to see the era of cosmic dawn, when the lights from the first stars and galaxies turned on. Even with the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, we have just a handful of galaxies detected at these early times. Even though they appear very faint to us, these early galaxies we have seen are likely to be the biggest and brightest objects around at that time. In order to understand how and when galaxies like our own Milky Way first formed, we need to peer even deeper into the early universe.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI).

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI).

The James Webb Space Telescope, with its much larger light-collecting area and infrared sensitivity, is designed to study these early galaxies in great detail.  But JWST is still years away, and our knowledge about the first galaxies is extremely limited. By using a trick from Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Hubble is attempting to get a sneak peek at these very faint and distant galaxies.

Illustration of how galaxy clusters can bend and redirect the light from distant background galaxies. Not only is the galaxy's light bent back in our direction so that Hubble can view it, but it is also magnified. This technique provides a means by which we can detect faint distant galaxies that would otherwise be out of reach of Hubble's capabilities. Illustration Credit: A. Feild (STScI)

Illustration of how galaxy clusters can bend and redirect the light from distant background galaxies. Not only is the galaxy’s light bent back in our direction so that Hubble can view it, but it is also magnified. This technique provides a means by which we can detect faint distant galaxies that would otherwise be out of reach of Hubble’s capabilities. Illustration Credit: A. Feild (STScI)

The most massive objects in the Universe — very massive clusters of galaxies — bend space in such a way that light rays passing by a cluster will also be bent, much in the way light passing through a telescope is bent. This is called “gravitational lensing,” and these clusters act as nature’s telescope, magnifying and stretching the light from those galaxies located behind the clusters.

The Frontier Fields is observing six of these massive clusters of galaxies. Due to the boost from the cluster lensing, the images obtained by the Frontier Fields will probe galaxies ten to twenty times fainter than the objects seen in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. In combination with six additional “parallel” fields, areas near the Frontier Fields regions that lack massive galaxy clusters but can be observed simultaneously to obtain additional “deep field” images, these images are expected to give us a better understanding of how and when galaxies like our Milky Way formed.

The very first data from the first cluster — Abell 2744 — has been taken:

The immense gravity in this foreground galaxy cluster, Abell 2744, warps space to brighten and magnify images of far-more-distant background galaxies as they looked over 12 billion years ago, not long after the big bang. This is the first of the Frontier Fields to be imaged.

The immense gravity in this foreground galaxy cluster, Abell 2744, warps space to brighten and magnify images of far-more-distant background galaxies as they looked over 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. This is the first of the Frontier Fields to be imaged. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

As have the first observations of a parallel field:

In this "parallel field" to Abell 2744, Hubble resolves roughly 10,000 galaxies seen in visible light, most of which are randomly scattered galaxies. The blue galaxies are distant star-forming galaxies seen from up to 8 billion years ago; the handful of larger, red galaxies are in the outskirts of the Abell 2744 cluster.

In this “parallel field” to Abell 2744, Hubble resolves roughly 10,000 galaxies seen in visible light, most of which are randomly scattered galaxies. The blue galaxies are distant star-forming galaxies seen from up to 8 billion years ago; the handful of larger, red galaxies are in the outskirts of the Abell 2744 cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

While astronomers work to understand these first images,   Hubble is moving on to the next cluster — MACS0416-2403. Expect many more beautiful and deep images over the next few years, and a new understanding of cosmic dawn.