Image: Composite image, quasar
Masamune Oguri, Naohisa Inada et al.
This composite image shows SDSSJ1226-0006, a new gravitationally lensed quasar discovered in a Japanese survey announced on April 11, 2012. The quasar image in the original image of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which was used to search for survey gravitational lensing, looks only slightly extended, but the Hubble Telescope view clearly shows two distinct quasar images (white) as well as a massive galaxy in between the quasar images (orange) that produces gravitational lensing.
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updated 4/12/2012 8:21:38 PM ET 2012-04-13T00:21:38

The pesky reality that the universe's expansion is accelerating — an observation that prompted astronomers to invoke an unknown entity called dark energy to explain it — has been further confirmed by new measurements.

Scientists have used cosmic magnifying glasses called gravitational lenses to observe super-bright distant galaxies, giving a measure of how quickly the universe is blowing up like a giant balloon. They found, in agreement with previous measurements, that the universe's expansion is indeed speeding up over time.

The first measurement of this phenomenon, based on exploding stars called supernovae, was made in the 1990s.

"The accelerated cosmic expansion is one of the central problems in modern cosmology," Masamune Oguri, of the University of Tokyo's Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, said in a statement.

"In 2011 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe using observations of distant supernovae. A caution is that this method using supernovae is built on several assumptions, and therefore independent checks of the result are important in order to draw any robust conclusion."

Scientists still don't have much of an idea why the universe is not only expanding doing so ever-faster. The gravity of all the mass in the universe would be expected to pull everything back inward, so scientists call whatever force is counteracting gravity "dark energy."

"Our new result using gravitational lensing not only provides additional strong evidence for the accelerated cosmic expansion, but also is useful for accurate measurements of the expansion speed, which is essential for investigating the nature of dark energy," Oguri said.

Ogiri led the new study of quasars with Naohisa Inada at Japan's Nara National College of Technology.

Quasars are objects bright enough to be spotted halfway across the universe. They are thought to be powered by hungry black holes that gobble up copious amounts of matter in the centers of galaxies, releasing radiant jets of light that shoot out into space.

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The light from quasars sometimes passes by massive objects on its way to telescopes on Earth, and the gravity from these objects bends space-time, causing the light to travel along a curved path. This can produce warped and distorted double images of a single distant quasar. [ Video: Quasar Details Seen With Gravitational Lenses ]

As the universe expands, the distance to quasars increases, and so do the chances that a quasar's light will pass by a massive object and be gravitationally lensed.

Thus the frequency of gravitationally lensed quasars can indicate the expansion speed of the universe.

Ogiri, Inada and their colleagues searched for such quasars in the catalog of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which took detailed observations of giant swaths of the night sky. In a collection of about 100,000 quasars, the researchers identified 50 that were being gravitationally lensed, significantly increasing the known total sample of these objects.

The researchers used their calculation of the frequency of gravitationally lensed quasars to deduce that the universe's expansion is indeed accelerating.

The new results will be reported in an upcoming paper published in the Astronomical Journal.

You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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