Essentials of Strong Gravitational Lensing

Prasenjit Saha, Dominique Sluse, Jenny Wagner, Liliya L.R. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Of order one in (Formula presented.) quasars and high-redshift galaxies appears in the sky as multiple images as a result of gravitational lensing by unrelated galaxies and clusters that happen to be in the foreground. While the basic phenomenon is a straightforward consequence of general relativity, there are many non-obvious consequences that make multiple-image lensing systems (aka strong gravitational lenses) remarkable astrophysical probes in several different ways. This article is an introduction to the essential concepts and terminology in this area, emphasizing physical insight. The key construct is the Fermat potential or arrival-time surface: from it the standard lens equation, and the notions of image parities, magnification, critical curves, caustics, and degeneracies all follow. The advantages and limitations of the usual simplifying assumptions (geometrical optics, small angles, weak fields, thin lenses) are noted, and to the extent possible briefly, it is explained how to go beyond these. Some less well-known ideas are discussed at length: arguments using wavefronts show that much of the theory carries over unchanged to the regime of strong gravitational fields; saddle-point contours explain how even the most complicated image configurations are made up of just two ingredients. Orders of magnitude, and the question of why strong lensing is most common for objects at cosmological distance, are also discussed. The challenges of lens modeling, and diverse strategies developed to overcome them, are discussed in general terms, without many technical details.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12
JournalSpace Science Reviews
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2024
Externally publishedYes

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  • Gravitational lensing
  • Strong gravitational lensing


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