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Jodrell's first e-Merlin image shows curvature of space
 first image taken by the e-Merlin group of telescopes
The first image taken by the e-Merlin group of telescopes

A group of UK radio telescopes has taken its first picture of space showing how light is bent by gravity.

Led by Jodrell Bank, the e-Merlin array focussed on an astronomical phenomenon known as the double quasar to demonstrate the curvature of space.

Scientists believe the image proves Einstein's gravitational theory.

It's hoped that by working together, the array of seven telescopes will produce detailed radio images of stars and galaxies.

'Inspiring'

Established in 2009, the e-Merlin telescope array is one of the world's most powerful tools for studying the universe.

With Jodrell Bank's giant Lovell telescope in Cheshire at its heart, the array links seven UK radio telescopes with optical fibres to effectively create one giant telescope.

Jodrell Bank's Lovell Telescope
Jodrell Bank is at the heart of the e-Merlin project

By using them as one single "lens", astronomers hope to probe the universe further and address key questions relating to the origin of galaxies, stars and planets.

To demonstrate its capabilities, scientists at the University of Manchester turned Merlin toward the famous double quasar - Jodrell Bank's most famous astronomical discovery - to take its first image of space.

Merlin's first image shows how light from the quasar nine billion light years away is bent around a nearer galaxy by the curvature of space, creating a double image.

Scientists say this is confirmation that the huge mass of a galaxy or a black hole causes space to be curved, as predicted by Albert Einstein.

Professor Simon Garrington, director of e-Merlin at the University of Manchester, said its first image showed the success of the project.

"We are very much looking forward to the new scientific results that will flow from the telescope over the coming years."

Minister for Science and Universities, David Willetts said he was confident the project would reap "significant scientific rewards."

"The image produced is inspiring to all with an interest in the space sector," he said.

"It demonstrates how effective British universities are in this field."

Einstein

The 'double quasar' is not a new discovery but it is one of Jodrell Bank's proudest moments.

Map of e-Merlin array

In 1979, astronomer Denis Walsh spotted what appeared to be two identical images of a distant object in the northern sky using telescopes at Jodrell Bank.

However, he wasn't seeing double.

Further investigations confirmed the object as a 'quasi-stellar radio source' - or quasar - which is the centre of a massive galaxy surrounding a massive black hole.

Quasars are among the most luminous objects in the universe emitting large amounts of visible light and electromagnetic radiation.

However, in this case, the warping of space by a galaxy in the foreground results in a 'gravitational lens' producing multiple images of the same quasar.

The discovery was made long after the death of physicist Albert Einstein who famously predicted this would happen in his Theory of Gravity.




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