Gravitational lensing is an exceptional field in astronomy in the sense that its occurence and many of its features – e.g. multiple images, time delays, Einstein rings, quasar microlensing, galactic microlensing, weak lensing – were predicted (long) before they were actually observed. Although “prediction” or predictability is considered one of the important criteria of modern science, many (astro-)physical phenomena are too complicated for a minute prediction (just think of the weather forecast). The reason why this worked here is that gravitational lensing is a simple geometrical concept which easily allows qualitative estimates and quantitative calculations. Extrapolating from these thoughts, it should be possible to look forward in time once again and predict future applications of gravitational lensing.
However, at any given time it requires very good intuition, some courage and maybe even a bit of ingenuity to predict qualitatively new phenomena. It does not need much of either to envision that the known lensing phenomena will become better, sharper, more. My predictions for the next decade in this sense are humble and modest:
No doubt there will soon be more determinations of accurate time delays in multiply-imaged quasar systems. If the models will get more precise as well, the value of the Hubble constant determined from a number of lens systems will be accurate to a few percent or better and will probably turn out to be as reliable as values obtained with any other method .
The frequencies, image separations, redshift distributions of multiply-imaged quasars and their lenses will become a major tool in differentiating between different cosmological models. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, e.g., will discover a few hundred new lensed quasars with very well defined selection criteria, ideally suited for that purpose. Another angle on the cosmological model and the values of and offer the statistics of arcs. The number of high redshift galaxies seen as arcs depends crucially on the number of rich galaxy clusters at intermediate redshifts. And since different cosmological models predict very different formation redshifts for clusters, this promising road should be followed as well .
The new facilities which become available now or in the near future in the infrared/sub-mm/mm domain – like SCUBA, SIRTF, FIRST, IRAM – will open a completely new window in these wavelength ranges, with supposedly most spectacular results in the arcs and cluster lensing regime.
Quasar microlensing will provide information on the structure of the quasars and the intervening clumped matter. With the new X-ray telescope AXAF with its high spatial resolution it will become possible to obtain X-ray lightcurves which due to the presumably smaller emission region will produce dramatic microlensing events in multiply-imaged quasars. Maybe we can “map” the hot spots of quasars this way.
The largest number of lensing events in the near future will doubtlessly come from the “local” microlensing experiments monitoring galactic bulge stars. The art of taking spectra of highly magnified stars during microlensing events (as pioneered by ) will open up the fascinating possibility to investigate the metallicity of bulge stars in detail or even resolve the stellar surfaces and study their center-to-limb variations. In addition of being an excellent tool to study the structure of the Milky Way, galactic microlensing will also provide unbiased statistics on the fraction of binary stars (within certain relative distances). Extending the sensitivity to higher mass ratios between the binary components will naturally lead to the detection of planets around stars (at distances of many kiloparsecs!). Microlensing has the advantage compared to all other Earth-bound planet search techniques that it is able to detect Earth-mass planets! It is also imaginable that before too long such microlensing events could be detected directly by monitoring astrometrically the position of the star very accurately .
In due course we should also know quantitatively how much dark compact objects contribute to the mass of the halo of the Milky Way, and what their mass range is. The “pixel lensing” will probe other lines of sight through the Galactic halo by exploring the Andromeda galaxy and other nearby galaxies. This will provide information on the three-dimensional mass distribution of the halo.
Weak lensing will be used to map not just the outskirts of massive galaxy clusters, but also to trace the large scale structure by its effect on the background population of galaxies. If we find good ways to discriminate between source galaxies at various redshifts, this way we can ultimately produce a three-dimensional map of the matter in the universe (rather than a light map)! This will be an utmost useful thing for the understanding of structure formation and evolution; as an aside we will determine the matter content of the universe .
Some other possible applications of lensing will be: The black hole in the Galactic center affects all sources that are near or behind the center. Mapping this effect will be a complementary determination of the black hole mass and will help to study the dynamics near the black hole. The redshift of the most distant object will be pushed beyond z = 6, and it is quite likely that it will be magnified by lensing. The next generation of experiments to map the cosmic microwave background will be sensititive enough to detect the gravitational lens signature of the matter “in front”.
What about the not-so-predictable or not-so-easily-predictable future of lensing? Ultimately every object in the sky is affected by (ever so slight) lensing effects: this is the not-yet-reached regime of ultra weak lensing. I would like to conclude citing two remarks that Bill Press presented in his lensing outlook at the IAU Symposium 173 in Melbourne (1995). He mentions that “gravitational lens effects …are present along virtually every line of sight” . In a not quite so serious extrapolation. Press points out that more and more astronomers will (have to) deal with lensing in the next decade, so that lensing will become an “ubiquitous observational technique” and hence – for better or for worse: “Gravitational lensing may well disappear as a unique sub-specialty in astronomy”.
© Max Planck Society and the author(s)