Einstein Ring: Astronomers Just Found Cosmic Golden Needle That Was Buried for Two Decades

Einstein Ring Illustration

Artist’s illustration of Einstein Ring.

Discovery Sheds New Light on Famous Einstein Ring

Social distance science made possible with public W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA archive data.

Determined to find a needle in a cosmic haystack, a pair of astronomers time traveled through archives of old data from W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauankea in Hawaii and old X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to unlock a mystery surrounding a bright, lensed, heavily obscured quasar.

Einstein Ring Radio Image

A radio image of MG 1131+0456, the first known Einstein ring observed in 1987 using the Very Large Array. Credit: VLA

This celestial object, which is an active galaxy emitting enormous amounts of energy due to a black hole devouring material, is an exciting object in itself. Finding one that is gravitationally lensed, making it appear brighter and larger, is exceptionally exciting. While slightly over 200 lensed unobscured quasars are currently known, the number of lensed obscured quasars discovered is in the single digits. This is because the feeding black hole stirs up gas and dust, cloaking the quasar and making it difficult to detect in visible light surveys.

Not only did the researchers uncover a quasar of this type, they found the object happens to be the first discovered Einstein ring, named MG 1131+0456, which was observed in 1987 with the Very Large Array network of radio telescopes in New Mexico. Remarkably, though widely studied, the quasar’s distance or redshift remained a question mark.

“As we dug deeper, we were surprised that such a famous and bright source never had a distance measured for it,” said Daniel Stern, senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and author of the study. “Having a distance is a necessary first step for all sorts of additional studies, such as using the lens as a tool to measure the expansion history of the universe and as a probe for dark matter.”

Stern and co-author Dominic Walton, an STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy (UK), are the first to calculate the quasar’s distance, which is 10 billion light-years away (or a redshift of z = 1.849).

The result is published in today’s issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

“This whole paper was a bit nostalgic for me, making me look at papers from the early days of my career, when I was still in graduate school. The Berlin Wall was still up when this Einstein ring was first discovered, and all the data presented in our paper are from the last millennium,” said Stern.

Einstein Ring Gravitational Lenses

Examples of Einstein ring gravitational lenses taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/SLACS Survey team: A. Bolton (Harvard/Smithsonian), S. Burles (MIT), l. Koopmans (Kapteyn), T. Treu (UCSB), l. Moustakas (JPL/Caltech)


At the time of their research, telescopes around the planet were shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic (Keck Observatory has since reopened as of May 16); Stern and Walton took advantage of their extended time at home to creatively keep science going by combing through data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) to search for gravitationally lensed, heavily obscured quasars. While dust hides most active galaxies in visible light surveys, that obscuring dust makes such sources very bright in infrared surveys, such as provided by WISE.

Though quasars are often extremely far away, astronomers can detect them through gravitational lensing, a phenomenon that acts as nature’s magnifying glass. This occurs when a galaxy closer to Earth acts as a lens and makes the quasar behind it look extra bright. The gravitational field of the closer galaxy warps space itself, bending and amplifying the light of the quasar in the background. If the alignment is just right, this creates a circle of light called an Einstein ring, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1936.  More typically, gravitationally lensing will cause multiple images of the background object to appear around the foreground object.

Once Stern and Walton rediscovered MG 1131+0456 with WISE and realized its distance remained a mystery, they meticulously combed through old data from the Keck Observatory Archive (KOA) and found the Observatory observed the quasar seven times between 1997 and 2007 using the Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS) on the Keck I telescope, as well as the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) and the Echellette Spectrograph and Imager (ESI) on the Keck II telescope.

“We were able to extract the distance from Keck’s earliest data set, taken in March of 1997, in the early years of the observatory,” said Walton. “We are grateful to Keck and NASA for their collaborative efforts to make more than 25 years of Keck data publicly available to the world. Our paper would not have been possible without that.”

The team also analyzed NASA’s archival data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory in 2000, in the first year after the mission launched.

Next Steps

With MG 1131+0456’s distance now known, Walton and Stern were able to determine the mass of the lensed galaxy with exquisite precision and use the Chandra data to robustly confirm the obscured nature of the quasar, accurately determining how much intervening gas lies between us and its luminous central regions.

“We can now fully describe the unique, fortuitous geometry of this Einstein ring,” said Stern. “This allows us to craft follow-up studies, such as using the soon-to-launch James Webb Space Telescope to study the dark matter properties of the lensing galaxy.”

“Our next step is to find lensed quasars that are even more heavily obscured than MG 1131+0456,” said Walton. “Finding those needles is going to be even harder, but they’re out there waiting to be discovered. These cosmic gems can give us a deeper understanding of the universe, including further insight into how supermassive black holes grow and influence their surroundings,” says Walton.

Astronomers Dominic Walton and Daniel Stern

Adhering to social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, astronomers Dominic Walton (left) and Daniel Stern (right) collaborated remotely via Zoom to conduct their study of the lensed, obscured quasar, MG 1131+0456 and determine its distance. Credit: D. Stern, NASA JPL/D. Walton, University of Cambridge IoA

Reference: “A Redshift for the First Einstein Ring, MG 1131+0456” by Daniel Stern and Dominic J. Walton, 1 June 2020, The Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab922c

About LRIS

The Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS) is a very versatile and ultra-sensitive visible-wavelength imager and spectrograph built at the California Institute of Technology by a team led by Prof. Bev Oke and Prof. Judy Cohen and commissioned in 1993. Since then it has seen two major upgrades to further enhance its capabilities: the addition of a second, blue arm optimized for shorter wavelengths of light and the installation of detectors that are much more sensitive at the longest (red) wavelengths. Each arm is optimized for the wavelengths it covers. This large range of wavelength coverage, combined with the instrument’s high sensitivity, allows the study of everything from comets (which have interesting features in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum), to the blue light from star formation, to the red light of very distant objects. LRIS also records the spectra of up to 50 objects simultaneously, especially useful for studies of clusters of galaxies in the most distant reaches, and earliest times, of the universe.  LRIS was used in observing distant supernovae by astronomers who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for research determining that the universe was speeding up in its expansion.


The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) is a unique, cross-dispersed echelle spectrograph that captures spectra of objects over a large range of infrared wavelengths at high spectral resolution. Built at the UCLA Infrared Laboratory by a team led by Prof. Ian McLean, the instrument is used for radial velocity studies of cool stars, abundance measurements of stars and their environs, planetary science, and many other scientific programs. A second mode provides low spectral resolution but high sensitivity and is popular for studies of distant galaxies and very cool low-mass stars. NIRSPEC can also be used with Keck II’s adaptive optics (AO) system to combine the powers of the high spatial resolution of AO with the high spectral resolution of NIRSPEC. Support for this project was provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

About ESI

The Echellette Spectrograph and Imager (ESI) is a medium-resolution visible-light spectrograph that records spectra from 0.39 to 1.1 microns in each exposure. Built at UCO/Lick Observatory by a team led by Prof. Joe Miller, ESI also has a low-resolution mode and can image in a 2 x 8 arc min field of view. An upgrade provided an integral field unit that can provide spectra everywhere across a small, 5.7 x4.0 arc sec field. Astronomers have found a number of uses for ESI, from observing the cosmological effects of weak gravitational lensing to searching for the most metal-poor stars in our galaxy.

About KOA

The Keck Observatory Archive (KOA) is a collaboration between the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) and the W. M. Keck Observatory (WMKO). NExScI is sponsored by NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, and operated by the California Institute of Technology in coordination with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

About W. M. Keck Observatory

The W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes are among the most scientifically productive on Earth. The two 10-meter optical/infrared telescopes on the summit of Maunakea on the Island of Hawaii feature a suite of advanced instruments including imagers, multi-object spectrographs, high-resolution spectrographs, integral-field spectrometers, and world-leading laser guide star adaptive optics systems.

Some of the data presented herein were obtained at Keck Observatory, which is a private 501(c) 3 non-profit organization operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation.

The authors wish to recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Maunakea has always had within the Native Hawaiian community.  We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.

11 Comments on "Einstein Ring: Astronomers Just Found Cosmic Golden Needle That Was Buried for Two Decades"

  1. I await the electric universe’s response. While the galaxy is indeed ‘lensed’, one might think more of this as being viewed through an atmosphere of perhaps hydrogen as used in astronomical telescopic instruments here on Earth. Compressed gases are the viewing enabler, not gravity.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 2, 2020 at 6:37 am | Reply

      Why would expect pseudoscience on a science site?

      Speaking of which, all that handwaving is rejected by the evidenced science presented here, so why bother yourself and others with your own pseudoscience ideas? Look at all the hard work that you spit on and grind under your feet! And be ashamed.

  2. Anonymous amateur | June 2, 2020 at 6:19 am | Reply

    I like your thinking process. Using your analogy of a visible light telescope, from my understanding what’s going on with gravitational lensing is the gravitational distortions created by the mass of the closer object is bending spacetime in such a way that the fabric of space itself is the lens of the theoretical telescope.
    The hydrogen in the intervening galaxy actually serves to obscure the more distant object. The light is passing near in just such a way that the curvature of spacetime bends it around instead of it having to pass through. It would be like the middle of your magnifying glass was fogged up, but the edges are clear.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 2, 2020 at 6:43 am | Reply

      Um, maybe I was too hasty then, if that was the intention with “not gravity”. Gravity is at the front and center of Einstein rings.

      But it is still unnecessary handwaving. What does the paper say? Can you quantify your physics with testable models and predictions? If not, it’s just hot gas. :-/

  3. The einstein worship is getting old

  4. A small error in the article which stated the quasar IS emitting great amounts of energy. It would be more correct to say it WAS emitting large amounts of energy. The light being observed was emitted billions of years ago, who knows what it’s doing now?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 3, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Reply

      To nitpick, it isn’t an error. Astronomers use the reference frame of their observations (the local “now”) and redshift for later comparisons if necessary.

      I know that is confusing. It isn’t (much) clearly stated and it took me years to wring out of astronomical texts (before the web and astronomy MOOCs).

  5. Did you read the article? Dl you understand what gravitational lensing is? If you did, you would not be questioning it here. The article said the quasar was obscured in the visible light spectrum, but that the same thing that obscures the quasar in the visible spectrum, illuminates the quasar in the infrared spectrum. Like how fog diffuses light, and is made brighter. I know very little about the technical processes involved here, but I know enough to know when someone is talking out their @ss! You shouldn’t critisize others people’s work unless you are their peers. It is obvious to all that you do not fit that catagory.

  6. Interesting how the petty brinkmanship of politics has crossed over into science. But, after all, humans are a race of virtue-signalling, gain-saying politicians. Just look at how we discuss science!

    • Torbjörn Larsson | June 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Reply

      That is conspiracy theory. Science is well known for being as apolitical as humanly possible – opinions may differ with all, but facts are shared by all.

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