Observatory weighs Universe's invisible matter
EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY NEWS RELEASE
Posted: December 3, 2000
This fundamental result is based on the powerful, but challenging method of "cosmic shear". It depends on very accurate measurements of the apparent, weak distortion and preferential orientation of images of distant galaxies.
This effect is caused by deflection of the light from those galaxies by the large mass concentrations in the Universe it encounters on its way to us. The larger these masses are, the larger are the apparent image distortions and the more pronounced are the alignments of neigbouring galaxy images.
The new analysis was made possible by means of unique observational data, obtained under excellent conditions with the the ESO 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope and the multi-mode FORS1 instrument at the Paranal Observatory.
Led by astronomers at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, the team used for the first time the VLT to probe the mass density of dark matter in the Universe, by means of weak gravitational lensing effects.
The team selected 50 different sky fields which were then observed in service mode by the ESO staff at the Paranal Observatory. Long exposures of these fields were made with the FORS1 instrument (in its imaging mode) on the VLT 8.2-m ANTU telescope and only during nights with the very best observing conditions. In fact, 90% of the fields have image quality better than 0.65 arcsec, guaranteeing a superb basis for the subsequent study.
Clumps of dark matter
The astronomers refer to this as a coherent orientation. It can only be explained by gravitational lensing effects produced by clumps of dark matter in space, distributed along huge "filaments". The above photo demonstrates this, by means of the VLT exposure (right) and the deduced mass distribution in the same direction, based on these measurements
The weak lensing effect
When the light of a distant galaxy passes close to a concentration of matter in space, it will be (more or less) deflected, due to the effect of the field of gravity of this matter. The observed image of the galaxy is therefore distorted.
Very strong gravitational lensing effects (by very heavy objects) produce spectacular gravitational arcs observed in some rare clusters of galaxies, cf. the VLT images of CL2244-0 and Abell 370.
Much weaker lensing effects (by less massive objects) are in fact present everywhere in the Universe, but they are not easy to detect. This was the effect the astronomers searched for. It manifests itself as a small stretching in a particular direction of the images of all galaxies that are located behind the gravitational lens. This phenomenon may then be observed as an alignment of galaxies in that particular sky area. The existence of the lens and its overall mass and extension can then be determined, albeit with some uncertainty only.
An important contribution to the map of the Universe
This kind of investigation is rather difficult and cannot be based on individual sky fields alone. The final result, in terms of the inferred mass density of the Universe, only emerges when "adding" all of the 50 observed fields.
Making the reasonable assumption that the distribution of galaxies and dark matter in space are similar, the new investigation shows that the total matter density is less than half of what is needed to stop the current cosmic expansion. The new result also supports the existence of a non-zero "cosmological constant" (vacuum energy), already indicated by supernova observations.
In the ongoing quest for establishing the first true mass map of the Universe from the gravitational lensing effects caused by this mass, the VLT has now demonstrated its great potential with bravour.
The light collecting power and, not least, its excellent image quality provides what it likely to be the best observing configuration for this very challenging research programme. It was also made possible because of the opportunity to use the VLT Service Mode during which ESO staff astronomers at Paranal are responsible for carrying out the actual observations, at the moment of the very best atmospheric conditions.