Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer

Black holes and warped space: New UK telescope shows off first images

09 Dec 2010

This dramatic image is the first to be produced by e-MERLIN, a powerful new array of radio telescopes linked across the UK.

The Double Quasar through e-MERLIN

Spearheaded by the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory and funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the e-MERLIN telescope will allow astronomers to address key questions relating to the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets.

To demonstrate its capabilities, University of Manchester astronomers turned the new telescope array toward the “Double Quasar”. This enigmatic object, first discovered by Jodrell Bank, is a famous example of Einstein’s theory of gravity in action. 

The new image shows how the light from a quasar billions of light years away is bent around a foreground galaxy by the curvature of space.

This light has been travelling for 9 billion years before it reached the Earth. The quasar is a galaxy powered by a super-massive black hole, leading to the ejection of jets of matter moving at almost the speed of light – one of which can be seen arcing to the left in this new e-MERLIN image.

The warping of space results in a ‘gravitational lens’ producing multiple images of the same quasar – the two brightest of these lensed images can be seen here as two bright objects, one below the other.

The foreground galaxy whose mass is responsible for the lensing effect is also visible just above the lower quasar image.  The radio emission seen in the e-MERLIN image suggests that this galaxy also harbours a black hole, albeit somewhat smaller.

The UK’s national facility for radio astronomy, e-MERLIN is now set to produce increasingly-detailed radio images of stars and galaxies using seven telescopes spread up to 220 km apart across the UK and working as one. This combination of widely-spread telescopes provides astronomers with a powerful ‘zoom lens’ with which they can study the fine details of astronomical events out towards the edge of the observable universe.

The radio signals collected by the telescopes are brought back to Jodrell Bank using a new optical fibre network. These fibre links and advanced electronic receivers will allow astronomers to collect far more data and so see in a single day what would have previously taken them more than a year of observations.

In parallel with this successful demonstration of the new telescope system, work has begun on ‘early science’ observations intended to rigorously test its capabilities. The project has attracted astronomers from over 100 institutes across the world who will use e-MERLIN to study a huge range of astrophysics.

This includes star birth and death, black holes and galaxy evolution, pulsars (the collapsed cores of exploded stars) and young planets forming around nearby stars.

The e-MERLIN project has been funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Northwest Development Agency,

The University of Manchester, The University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University. It is being operated by STFC and the University of Manchester.

Minister for Science and Universities, David Willetts said: “The image produced by the e-Merlin telescope is inspiring to all with an interest in the space sector.

“I am confident this impressive project will reap significant scientific rewards - it demonstrates how effective British universities are in this field."

Professor Simon Garrington, Director of e-MERLIN at the University of Manchester, says:

“This first image demonstrates the success of the complex new system of electronics and optical fibre links.

“It is also testament to the hard work put in by our engineers, scientists and technicians to turn our vision of a huge fibre-connected array of telescopes into a reality. We are very much looking forward to the new scientific results that will flow from the telescope over the coming years.”

Professor John Womersley of the Science and Technology Facilities Council said:  “e-Merlin is a flagship project for the UK in radio astronomy, a scientific field where the UK has a rich legacy, a strong future, and is proud to be the home of some of the very best researchers in the world. 

“The project has attracted more than 300 astronomers from over 100 institutes in more than 20 countries who will use the power of this ‘super telescope’ to conduct major scientific legacy projects.”

Professor Mike Garrett, General Director of ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, said: “e-MERLIN is going to be a transformational telescope – astronomers around the world can't wait to get their hands on it.

“As a pathfinder for the next-generation international radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, e-MERLIN represents another giant leap forward for the global radio astronomy community."

Notes for editors

Images and an animation is available at http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/news/2010/emerlin1/

For media enquiries contact:

Daniel Cochlin
Media Relations
The University of Manchester
+44 (0)161 275 8387
daniel.cochlin@manchester.ac.uk

Further quotes
Professor Steve Watts, Head of the University of Manchester’s School of Physics & Astronomy (of which Jodrell Bank Observatory is a part), says: “The development of this groundbreaking new telescope follows more than 60 years of radio astronomy research and development at Jodrell Bank Observatory. Our astronomers will be working closely with colleagues from around the world to make new scientific discoveries with e-MERLIN.”


Professor Steve Rawlings of the University of Oxford says: “This is a fantastic image. Nature provides us with gravitational lenses that help us study black holes across the Universe, but it is talented engineers and scientists that develop the technologies and instruments that allow us to exploit them. It's great for the UK that the e-MERLIN team are such world leaders in radio astronomy.

Dr Neal Jackson of the University of Manchester, an expert in gravitational lensing, says: “This first image of the Double Quasar clearly demonstrates how useful e-MERLIN is going to be in our studies of gravitational lenses. By mapping the bending of light by mass we will be able to study the way in which both stars and dark matter are distributed in galaxies and how this changes as the universe evolves.”

e-MERLIN
e-MERLIN is an array of seven radio telescopes across the UK whose signals are brought back on an optical fibre network to The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory. Here they are combined in a highly-specialised supercomputer called a correlator (designed and constructed by the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory of the National Research Council of Canada).  The telescope array can then operate as a dedicated radio interferometer to produce high-resolution images. With a maximum baseline length of 220 km, e-MERLIN provides a unique capability for radio imaging with 0.01-0.15-arcsec resolution at wide bands around frequencies of 1.5, 5 and 22 GHz (L, C and K bands).

e-MERLIN is the UK's national facility for high resolution radio astronomy and is operated by The University of Manchester and the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Further information can be found on the e-MERLIN website at http://www.e-merlin.ac.uk.
The e-MERLIN upgrade has been funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Northwest Development Agency, The University of Manchester, The University of Cambridge and Liverpool John Moores University. It is being operated by STFC and the University of Manchester.

The Double Quasar image

The “Double Quasar” is a gravitational lens – a famous confirmation of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity showing that mass causes space to be curved. 

For a detailed summary of the Double Quasar, all images and an animation please visit http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/news/2010/emerlin1/