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!
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.
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
Hubble Space Telescope image below.
Last Modified: March 2007