Hubble spies eye in the sky

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2008 11:00 am

Do you ever feel that when you look at the sky, something is up there looking back at you?


Keck image of a gravitational lens that looks like an eye
Here’s looking at you, kid.

This cosmic eye is an illusion. I mean, duh, it’s not an eye. But it’s not even really shaped like one! The shape itself isn’t real.

The "pupil" of the eye is actually a galaxy about 2.2 billion light years from Earth. That’s a fair bit! But it happens to sit almost directly between us and a much more more distant galaxy — one that is 11 billion light years away. As the light from the background galaxy passes by the nearer one, the gravity of the nearer one bends the path of that light, twisting it in what’s called a gravitational lens.

Arcs are common results of lensing. That’s what you’re seeing here; the distant galaxy image split in two, arcs surrounding the spherical galaxy between them. An eye!

So that’s cool all by its lonesome. But of course there’s more.

A gravitational lens does more than distort the background galaxy image. it also magnifies it and makes it brighter. That means it’s easier to see, and easier to study. Usually, galaxies 11 frakkin’ billion light years away are too dinky to see well, but this one is literally laid out for us to see. By studying it, astronomers have actually been able to detect rotation (not by seeing it move — that would take millions of years — but by taking spectra and measuring the Doppler shift of the material in the galaxy. The rotation indicates that what we’re seeing here is a disk galaxy, young, but relatively normal, on its way to becoming a spiral galaxy much like our own!

It’s like a picture of a toddler, a galaxy growing up. It’s easily the best study of a distant galaxy ever made. And it’s pushed pretty hard on the technology — Hubble discovered the lens (and took the image above), and it took the 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe the spectra in detail. But soon, much larger telescopes currently being planned will find more objects like this, and instead of this being a one-off object, we’ll be able to build up a catalog of them. And when that happens, our own eyes will be able to stretch back in time and distance even better.

Alan Parsons Project Eye in the Sky album coverOh, one more thing: if that eye looks familiar to people of a certain age, well, you’re not alone. The Alan Parsons Project predicted this image back in June of 1982! Don’t believe me? Look at the name of the album: "Eye in the Sky"!

I am the eye in the sky
Looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules
Dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don’t need to see any more
To know that
I can read your mind, I can read your mind

Image credit: NASA/ESA/AURA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (46)

Links to this Post

  1. | October 8, 2008
  1. ioresult

    Seems to me the Egyptians “predicted” it way before. This is the eye of Horus.

  2. Oddly enough, the Ancient Egyptians predicted the Alan Parsons Project album cover about four thousand years before that.

  3. Great…. Now I’ll have that song in my head all day! 😛

  4. Yeah, I thought about dropping in the Horus reference, but 1982 is unhip enough for me, let alone 2000 BC.

  5. Peter Eldergill

    I thought the Alan Parson’s Project was some sort of hovercraft…..

  6. Joseph J. Finn

    Dr. Plait, you forgot to mention that this form of gravitational lensing is known as an Einstein ring.

  8. Cheyenne

    No, the “Alan Parson’s Project” was Dr. Evil’s plan to blow up the planet by drilling to it’s core. Or was it the one with the “laser”?

  9. Hi Phil (I hope you don’t mind me calling you that way, otherwise you could post a call-me-a-doctor FAQ),

    My wife just pointed me at pretty amazing thing. She said a man planted trees like 40 years ago and then looked after them to see them become what are they now… Well, if you come close still staying at Earth’s surface, they could look like trees. But when you look from up there…

    Check it out:,40.297852&sspn=23.975005,77.958984&ie=UTF8&t=h&ll=54.468404,64.797277&spn=0.008143,0.022745&z=16

    It reads “Lenin is 100”. Well, I know what you think, but anyways, idea is outstanding.

  10. OT, but I just had to make Phil angry…

    Natural Born Fibber

    It turns out that that “overhead projector” John McCain claimed Barack Obama tried to get a $3 million earmark for was actually money to rebuild Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the United States.

    McCain’s “overhead projector” is the apparatus that runs the planetarium, which is a bit like calling the Palomar Observatory a new set of glasses.

    –Josh Marshall

  11. BB

    This is just awesome. Thank you, BA

  12. rob

    it’s the eye of sauron! he sees you!

  13. Huh, and here I thought they were predicting FISA…

    Does Hubble have anything to say about children of the Moon?

  14. IBY

    Uh Oh, the aliens are watching us, then they will invade us in 2012 and kill us all.

  15. kuhnigget

    You know, apart from the science and all, stuff like this is just gosh darn beautiful. Gettin’ all weepy eyed, here…

  16. Fritriac

    Oh noes! Now i knew what to hear the whole night!

    Thanks for putting that bug in my ear again 😉

  17. Karnbeln

    I could see myself receiving this as an email attachment with a subject line like:

    [Fwd:]FW:Fwd:God’s Eye!

    Oh, chain mail. Send them to 20 different people and god will give you a good day.

  18. Yet Another Beautiful Picture! As an Alan Parsons Project fan, I appreciated the reference, but – now I’m going to have that tune running through my head all day, too. At least it’s one I can enjoy over and over and over. . .

    Phil, 1982 and 2K BC are unhip? Then what do you call 2.2 and 11 billion years old?! I’m just askin’. . . – g^2

    P.S. Yes, I had the LP, and so did my wife.

    P.P.S. If you don’t know what an LP is, go look it up :-) Hint: the letters stand for Long Playing and has something to do with 33rpm vinyl.

  19. Corey

    What does the assymetry of the further galaxy say about the distribution of mass in the nearer galaxy? I’m assuming the lensing effect would differ based on mass (& thus gravity) distribution.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    Well, since everybody here is being silly, I thought that I should join in, too.

    Ancient Egyptian Art

    The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the above picture reads:

    My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Terrible!

    The old jokes are the best ones!

  21. I feel obliged to provide a link to the other famous eye in the sky, aka the Helix Nebula. Of course, this one doesn’t have the interesting lensing behind it, but it’s still quite interesting in its own right.

  22. IVAN3MAN

    @ Andy

    Next time, try using the service to simplify overlong URL’s.

  23. Jared Lessl

    So… where are the moties?

  24. Why is it blue?

    Is that false color, or does it have something to do with red-shifting.

    Deeply cool, regardless.

  25. Duane

    What a trip into the past! I dug through my old LPs until I found it. I was excited to listen to it again, until I realized I no longer had a turntable….

  26. My-Name-is-Kenneth

    Wasn’t there a Roger Corman film circa 1963 about a man with X-ray vision who ended up being able to see a giant eye in the center of the Milky Way galaxy that was staring back at him?

    Perhaps we will learn that our Universe is but a drop of water in a greater realm and some megascientist is staring at us through his megamicroscope.

    And then he learns that his universe is but a drop of water in an even larger universe, and so on.

  27. Blegh. Hoag’s object is prettier and doesn’t rely on weird general relativity stuff to get the effect.


  28. IVAN3MAN

    Excuse me, Dr. Plait, but I just now spotted that you did provide a link to an earlier article of yours in which you had mentioned the “Einstein ring” phenomenon. 10³ apologies.

  29. DrFlimmer

    @ Corey

    The (a)symmetry does not only depend on the mass distribution, the actual position of the background galaxy behind the lensing galaxy is at least as important as the mass distribution. If the background galaxy is perfectly in line with the lensing galaxy then you get an “Einstein Ring” (mentioned above). If it’s a bit out of the line the ring gets distorted and you can get that “eye”, but the position is really crucial – a few arcseconds do matter! (Of course the mass distribution effects the picture you get, but I think it’s more about the position in this case.)

  30. It does look like the Eye of Ra… And the Alan Parson’s Project was a favorite back in … um, yeah.

  31. Calli Arcale

    I am a big fan of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson. They did albums together as the Alan Parsons Project, then split up so Woolfson could go into musicals. Parsons kept going, but dropped “Project” in deference to his buddy’s departure.

    Actually, if you like Alan Parsons, you should check out “Time Machine”, a recent album he did. It’s one of his better concept albums, and includes some actual astronomy on the second track as it describes how when we see distant objects, we are actually seeing them as they were many, many years ago. It’s also got a picture of the TARDIS on the cover, which is cool. 😉 (And the song “Out Of The Blue” really fits the Doctor well.)

    No, the “Alan Parson’s Project” was Dr. Evil’s plan to blow up the planet by drilling to it’s core. Or was it the one with the “laser”?

    That would be the “laser”. “Time Machine” coincidentally came out the same year as the second Austin Powers movies, and Alan Parsons was tickled pink by the joke. In response he did a couple of remixes of “Time Machine” (the instrumental title track of the album) featuring sound clips from the movie. It’s pretty good; they were released as a four-track “single” with four different cuts of “Time Machine”.

    Another Alan Parsons album that might be appreciated by folks here is “On Air”, released in the mid-90s. It’s about aerospace, and includes a couple of very nice spaceflight songs: “Apollo” and “Welcome to the Mission”. And for the sci-fi geeks here, their second album, released way back in 1977, was “I Robot”, inspired by the Isaac Asimov anthology of the same name. And for the really serious science fiction geeks, who like *old* sci-fi, there’s always their original album: “Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allen Poe”, featuring the voice of Orson Welles in a couple of songs. They’ve also got some nice stuff for skeptics. Their third album, “Pyramid”, contains “Pyramania,” which is a response to the pyramid silliness of the late 70s.

    I’ve consulted all the sages I could find in the Yellow Pages but there aren’t many of them
    And the Mayan panoramas on my pyramid pajamas haven’t helped my little problem….

    Ah, time to go cue up my Alan Parsons playlist. 😉

  32. Grand Lunar

    It’s Keir Dulla!

  33. Calli Arcale: You didn’t mention the “Turn of a friendly card” album, probably because it isn’t science fiction related. However it does have what I consider to be one of the finest songs ever written: “Time”. (Not to be confused with the Pink Floyd song of the same name.)

    Play that song while you contemplate the vast span of time between that galaxy and us. Awesome!

  34. The most impressive fact here to me is that the abstract of the respective paper doesn’t even mention the gravitational lensing involved – this phenomenon, first seen a mere 29 years ago, has already become a perfectly normal tool for looong-distance astronomy.

  35. Calli Arcale

    Time . . . flowing like a river . . . time . . . beckoning me . . .

    That really is a great song.

    “Turn of a Friendly Card” is probably the best concept album from the “Project” years. I tend to waver between that and “On Air” as to which is the best overall Alan Parsons album — depends on the mood I’m in, basically. 😉

    The main reason I didn’t mention it, though, was because I was realizing that I was getting on an Alan Parsons kick and would probably wind up mentioning every single album if I didn’t stop myself somewhere. 😉

    Other good tracks, in no particular order, list not inclusive:
    “Games People Play” from “Turn of a Friendly Card”
    “You Don’t Believe”, from “Ammonia Avenue”
    “Children of the Moon” from “Eye in the Sky” (another good one for skeptics)
    “Stereotomy” from “Stereotomy”
    “La Sagrada Familia” from “Gaudi” (great look at the endless cycle of war, especially religious wars)
    “The Raven” from “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” (I love that poem)
    “We Play the Game” from “A Valid Path” (the only song in which Alan Parsons himself is the lead vocalist — he’s got a very good voice, which you’ll recognize because he did backing vocals a lot)
    “Vulture Culture” from “Vulture Culture” (one of the weaker albums, IMHO, but I like this song)
    “Mr Time” from “Try Anything Once” (a rare instance of a female lead vocalist)
    “Brother Up In Heaven” from “On Air” (brings tears to my eyes every time; became an unofficial anthem for Columbine victims, but was written about a guy who died in a friendly fire incident)

    It’s my favorite band. 😉

  36. Calli Arcale

    Oh, and if you feel “Turn of a Friendly Card” got short shrift from me, that’s probably ironic, since I used as part of the background color for a crossover fanfic that I wrote, called The Resurrection of Evil. (Yeah, it’s a melodramatic title, but it’s a Doctor Who story. :-P) If you want to see the album played up a bit, and if you don’t mind Dr Who/Highlander crossover fanfiction, you might want to check it out. (Warning: first chapter contains serious factual errors. I screwed up some history. I have since learned to *research* first.)

  37. kuhnigget

    Hey, that big statue over there doesn’t have a nose!
    No nose? How does it smell?
    It sphinx!

    Variations on a theme.

  38. TheWalruss

    This “gravitational lense” works both ways, right?
    So as I’m writing this, some bug-eyed alien 11 billion miles away could be putting a similar image of the Milky Way as its desktop background?
    I know it doesn’t work out quite that way because the “lense” galaxy is much closer to here than there, but it’s a fun idea! It gets better if you consider that it might be wondering what its galaxy looks like from our perspective, or perhaps that it could be posting some silly comments about it on its version of the 1nt4rw3b…

    But yea, my actual question is whether this would work both ways if the distances were equal, or if relativity would come into effect – 11 billion years ago, our galaxy would be someplace else so perhaps we’d be outside of the lensing effect?

  39. Roger Wilco

    Phil Said: The Alan Parsons Project predicted this image back in June of 1982!

    You cannot be Sirius!

  40. Nigel Depledge

    Hang on a sec … I thought (sticking with the musical theme) that The Night Has A Thousand Eyes…?

    Anyhow: Nice post, Phil, but I’m sceptical about the mind-reading. Have you heard of this chap called James Randi…? He’ll set you straight about that.

  41. Don Snow

    @Infophile –

    I think that your blue eyed planetary nebula is prettier. Closer. Smaller.
    But, prettier.

  42. kuhnigget

    @ Walruss

    Please refrain from the defamatory language. “Bug eyed aliens” indeed! The correct term is Spherically Occularized Beings, or SOBs. Make a note of it.

  43. SkepTTic

    I can read your mind (looking at youuuuu)

    I looove that song. Great vocals


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