Communiqué de presse

The VLT Weighs the Invisible Matter in the Universe

Shapes and Orientations of 76,000 Distant Galaxies

1 décembre 2000

An international team of astronomers [1] has succeeded in mapping the "dark" (invisible) matter in the Universe, as seen in 50 different directions from the Earth. They find that, within the uncertainty, it is unlikely that mass alone would stop the current expansion of the Universe. This fundamental result is based on the powerful, but challenging method of "cosmic shear". It depends on very accurate measurements of the apparent, weak distortion and preferential orientation of images of distant galaxies. This effect is caused by deflection of the light from those galaxies by the large mass concentrations in the Universe it encounters on its way to us. The larger these masses are, the larger are the apparent image distortions and the more pronounced are the alignments of neigbouring galaxy images. The new analysis was made possible by means of unique observational data, obtained under excellent conditions with the the ESO 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope and the multi-mode FORS1 instrument at the Paranal Observatory.

The VLT Observations

An international team lead by astronomers at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris [1] used for the first time the VLT to probe the mass density of dark matter in the Universe, by means of weak gravitational lensing effects.

The team selected 50 different sky fields which were then observed in service mode by the ESO staff at the Paranal Observatory. Long exposures of these fields were made with the FORS1 instrument (in its imaging mode) on the VLT 8.2-m ANTU telescope and only during nights with the very best observing conditions. In fact, 90% of the fields have image quality better than 0.65 arcsec, guaranteeing a superb basis for the subsequent study.

Clumps of dark matter

The unprecedented quality of these data enabled the astronomers to measure the shapes and orientations of the images of more than 70,000 galaxies with very high precision. After a careful statistical analysis, they were able to demonstrate that the distant galaxies are not randomly oriented on the sky - they show a a certain degree of alignment over substantial sky areas (to distances of several arcmin)

The astronomers refer to this as a coherent orientation. It can only be explained by gravitational lensing effects produced by clumps of dark matter in space, distributed along huge "filaments". ESO Press Photo eso0040 demonstrates this, by means of the VLT exposure (right) and the deduced mass distribution in the same direction, based on these measurements.

The weak lensing effect

The gravitational lensing effect was predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity at the beginning of the century.

When the light of a distant galaxy passes close to a concentration of matter in space, it will be (more or less) deflected, due to the effect of the field of gravity of this matter. The observed image of the galaxy is therefore distorted.

Very strong gravitational lensing effects (by very heavy objects) produce spectacular gravitational arcs observed in some rare clusters of galaxies, cf. the VLT images of CL2244-0 and Abell 370.

Much weaker lensing effects (by less massive objects) are in fact present everywhere in the Universe, but they are not easy to detect. This was the effect the astronomers searched for. It manifests itself as a small stretching in a particular direction of the images of all galaxies that are located behind the gravitational lens. This phenomenon may then be observed as an alignment of galaxies in that particular sky area. The existence of the lens and its overall mass and extension can then be determined, albeit with some uncertainty only.

An important contribution to the map of the Universe

Thanks to the large light collecting power of the VLT and the superb quality of the present images, the team succeeded in detecting large-scale, weak lensing effects in the Universe, in a large number of different (and thus independent) directions. Moreover, the analysis of this large data sample enabled the astronomers, for the first time, to set limits to the overall mass density of the universe, by means of the gravitational lensing by large scale structures. It turns out that their results are in remarkable agreement with the current constraints obtained by other cosmological considerations.

This kind of investigation is rather difficult and cannot be based on individual sky fields alone. The final result, in terms of the inferred mass density of the Universe, only emerges when "adding" all of the 50 observed fields.

Making the reasonable assumption that the distribution of galaxies and dark matter in space is similar, the new investigation shows that the total matter density is less than half of what is needed to stop the current cosmic expansion. The new result also supports the existence of a non-zero "cosmological constant" (vacuum energy), already indicated by supernova observations, cf. eso9821.

In the ongoing quest for establishing the first true mass map of the Universe from the gravitational lensing effects caused by this mass, the VLT has now demonstrated its great potential with bravour.

The light collecting power and, not least, its excellent image quality provides what is likely to be the best observing configuration for this very challenging research programme. It was also made possible because of the opportunity to use the VLT Service Mode during which ESO staff astronomers at Paranal are responsible for carrying out the actual observations, at the moment of the very best atmospheric conditions.


[1]: The team consists of Yannick Mellier (Principal Investigator [PI]; Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris [IAP] and Observatoire de Paris/DEMIRM [OP-DEMIRM], France), Ludovic van Waerbeke (co-PI, IAP), Roberto Maoli (IAP, OP-DEMIRM and University La Sapienza, Rome, Italy), Peter Schneider (University of Bonn, Germany), Bhuvnesh Jain (John Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA), Francis Bernardeau (Service de Physique Theorique, C.E. de Saclay, France), Thomas Erben (Max Planck für Astrophysik, Garching, Germany, IAP and OP-DEMIRM) and Bernard Fort (IAP).

Plus d'informations

The research described in this Press Release is reported in a research article ("Cosmic Shear Analysis in 50 Uncorrelated VLT Fields. Implications for Omega-0 and sigma-8."), submitted by the team to the European journal "Astronomy and Astrophysics". Note also the related article in the ESO Messenger (No. 101, p. 10-14, September 2000).


Yannick Mellier
Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris
Paris, France
Tél: +33-1-44328140

Ludovic van Waerbeke
Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris
Paris, France
Tél: +33-1-44328158

Roberto Maoli
University La Sapienza; p.t. Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris
Sapienza, Rome
Tél: +33-1-44328105

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A propos du communiqué de presse

Communiqué de presse N°:eso0040
Legacy ID:PR 24/00
Nom:Dark Matter, Gravitational Microlensing
Type:Early Universe : Galaxy : Grouping : Cluster
Early Universe : Cosmology : Phenomenon : Dark Matter
Facility:Very Large Telescope
Science data:2001A&A...368..766M


Cosmic shear in sky field with galaxy cluster
Cosmic shear in sky field with galaxy cluster