Galaxy Looks Like Molten Ring Thanks to Weird Phenomena Predicted by Einstein

A distant galaxy has appeared to the Hubble Space Telescope as a glowing, molten ring thanks to a phenomenon predicted by Einstein.

What is known as gravitational lensing makes the galaxy appear at multiple points in the sky in an arrangement called an Einstein ring, and in the process magnifying it.

From this Einstein ring, created by an object of tremendous mass between us and the galaxy, astronomers have been able to calculate the galaxy's distance from Earth, placing it at 9.4 billion light years away, as well as determining its age. The scientists were able to see it as it was when the Universe was just around 5 billion years old.

Although the galaxy has been officially designated GAL-CLUS-022058, Saurabh Jha, a researcher at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who conducted the first observation of the galaxy with the Hubble Space Telescope, has dubbed it "the Molten Ring."

This name is a nod to both its appearance as a glowing ring and its home constellation Fornax, or "the furnace," located in the sky over the southern hemisphere.

The galaxy existed during a period of the Universe that is marked by intense star formation, with stars being born at a rate of thousands of times faster in bright and dusty galaxies than we see in the Universe today.

This rapid rate of star formation could explain why there are so many galaxies with an elliptical shape in the Universe, according to researchers.

Susana Iglesias-Groth of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands in Spain said in a press release from the European Space Agency (ESA): "We can clearly see the spiral arms and the central bulge of the galaxy in the Hubble images.

"This will help us to better understand star formation in distant galaxies using planned observations."

To measure the physical qualities of GAL-CLUS-022058 and better understand conditions during this period of rapid star birth, the team—led by Polytechnic University of Cartagena astronomer Anastasio Díaz-Sánchez—examined the images of the galaxy created by gravitational lensing.

"Such a model could only be obtained with the Hubble imaging," Díaz-Sánchez said in a press release. "In particular, Hubble helped us to identify the four duplicated images and the stellar clumps of the lensed galaxy."

Einstein ring
An Einstein ring image of GAL-CLUS-022058 captured by Hubble in 2020. Researchers have used this near-complete Einstein ring to study the properties of the galaxy as it existed 9.4 billion years ago. Saurabh Jha/ESA/Hubble/NASA

Albert Einstein first considered the idea of gravitational lensing when he was developing his theory of general relativity in 1912. The theory suggests that objects of great mass like stars, black holes, and galaxies actually warp the very fabric of space around them.

That means that as light passes these warped regions of space the normal straight line in which it travels is also bent. In extreme cases, this bending of light can cause distant objects to be magnified.

It can even cause the light from these objects to reach an observer like Hubble at different times. This has the effect of making the object appear at multiple spots in one view of the sky. Sometimes these multiple images of the same object create illusions from the same object replicated in the shape of crosses or rings, as is the case with this early galaxy.

The effect of an intervening object in the case of the Molten Ring galaxy boosted the observational power of Hubble significantly and revealed the complex structure of GAL-CLUS-022058. This allowed them to pinpoint the galaxy's location precisely.

"The lensed galaxy is one of the brightest galaxies in the millimeter wavelength regime," Helmut Dannerbauer, team member and Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands researcher said in a press release. "Our research has also shown that it is a normal star-forming galaxy, a so-called main sequence galaxy, at the peak epoch of star formation in the Universe."

Gravitational lensing
An illustration of the effect of gravity bend light rays from a distant object and making it appear at multiple points. Astronomers used this phenomenon predicted by Einstein to pinpoint the location of a distant galaxy. ESA/ L. Calcada/NASA