Combining a double natural “magnifying glass” with the power of ESO's Very Large Telescope, astronomers have scrutinised the inner parts of the disc around a supermassive black hole 10 billion light-years away. They were able to study the disc with a level of detail a thousand times better than that of the best telescopes in the world, providing the first observational confirmation of the prevalent theoretical models of such discs.
The team of astronomers from Europe and the US studied the “Einstein Cross“, a famous cosmic mirage. This cross-shaped configuration consists of four images of a single very distant source. The multiple images are a result of gravitational lensing by a foreground galaxy, an effect that was predicted by Albert Einstein as a consequence of his theory of general relativity. The light source in the Einstein Cross is a quasar approximately ten billion light-years away, whereas the foreground lensing galaxy is ten times closer. The light from the quasar is bent in its path and magnified by the gravitational field of the lensing galaxy.
This magnification effect, known as “macrolensing“, in which a galaxy plays the role of a cosmic magnifying glass or a natural telescope, proves very useful in astronomy as it allows us to observe distant objects that would otherwise be too faint to explore using currently available telescopes. “The combination of this natural magnification with the use of a big telescope provides us with the sharpest details ever obtained,” explains Frédéric Courbin, leader of the programme studying the Einstein Cross with ESO's Very Large Telescope.