Imagine the Universe!

Gravitational Lensing

Imagine a bright object such as a star, a galaxy, or a quasar, that is very far away from Earth (say...10 billion light years). For our discussion, let us imagine we have a quasar. If there is nothing between it and us, we see one image of the quasar. Yet, if a massive galaxy (or cluster of galaxies) is blocking the direct view to the quasar, the light will be bent by the gravitational field around the galaxy [see figure below]. This is called "gravitational lensing," since the gravity of the intervening galaxy acts like a lens to redirect the light rays. But rather than creating a single image of the quasar, the gravitational lens creates multiple images. We follow the light rays from the Earth to the apparent locations of the quasar. If the galaxy were perfectly symmetric with respect to the line between the quasar and the Earth, then we would see a ring of quasars!

2 images of quasar, equally spaced, above and below actual quasar

Now, if the massive galaxy is off-center (as might be expected) with respect to the line between the quasar and the Earth, then the two light paths would be different distances around the galaxy. This makes the twin images be formed at different distances away from the actual quasar.

2 images of quasar, with the lower closer to actual quasar

Finally, since the distances between each of the objects is so great, the radius of the galaxy and the mass distribution of the galaxy are well approximated by point masses (the error is small). Thus, one can use simple geometry (knowing the mass of the galaxy, the distance of the galaxy and the two images) to estimate the distance to the actual quasar.

As an example of what gravitationally lensed objects would look like, check out the Hubble Space Telescope image (

HST image of gravitational lens in Abell 2218

Last Modified: March 2007

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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