Cardiff scientists unlock 'cosmic zoom lens' trick

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Image caption, Cardiff University scientists say their technique is helping uncover new gravitational lenses

Scientists in Cardiff say they have developed a new way of exploring hidden distant galaxies, which could improve our understanding of the universe.

Astronomers at Cardiff University say they have found a "relatively simple technique" which acts as a cosmic zoom lens to peer into space.

It was made while using the European Space Agency's Herschel Observatory, a million kilometres above earth.

Prof Steve Eales said: "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

"We have discovered a relatively simple technique which will enable us to unlock the secrets of galaxies hidden from optical telescopes."

The 'trick' uncovered by the scientists relies on a natural phenomenon in space known as a gravitational lens.

Light from large galaxies can be bent by the sheer gravitational force of star clusters, which like a magnify glass can then amplify the image of a far-distant body.

However, previous methods of searching for these gravitational lenses has been hit-and-miss.

But by using the Herschel telescope in space to search for far-infrared light sources emitted by gas and dust that formed a galaxy, the scientists have now been able to find more of the cosmic space lenses.

Dr Mattia Negrello from the Open University and lead researcher of the study said: "We've discovered that these cosmic zoom lenses are at work in not just a few, but in all of the distant and bright galaxies seen by Herschel.

"We no longer have to rely on the rather inefficient methods of finding lenses which are used at visible and radio wavelengths."

Prof Eales, who heads Cardiff University's School of Physics and Astronomy, added: "We're finding so many cosmic zoom lenses in our survey, we will really be able to get to grips with this hidden universe."

None of the findings would have been made without the intricate equipment on the Herschel space telescope where the university also played a role.

'Dark side'

One of Herschel's three instruments, called SPIRE, was developed be an international consortium led by Prof Matt Griffin in Cardiff.

"We are continually being surprised by the results from SPIRE," the professor said.

"We've gone from the discovery of water where it shouldn't really exist in our galaxy to studying the infant universe.

"These results highlight the power of Herschel to reveal the dark side of the universe."

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