Astronomy: Webb, Hubble combine to create most colourful view of Universe

París, Nov 14, 2023.- The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have united to study an expansive galaxy cluster known as MACS0416. The resulting panchromatic image combines visible and infrared light to assemble one of the most comprehensive views of the Universe ever obtained. Located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, MACS0416 is a pair of colliding galaxy clusters that will eventually combine to form an even bigger cluster.

The image reveals a wealth of details that are only possible by combining the power of both space telescopes. It includes a bounty of galaxies outside the cluster and a sprinkling of sources that vary over time, likely due to gravitational lensing — the distortion and amplification of light from distant background sources.

This cluster was the first of a set of unprecedented, super-deep views of the Universe from an ambitious, collaborative Hubble programme called the Frontier Fields, inaugurated in 2014. Hubble pioneered the search for some of the intrinsically faintest and youngest galaxies ever detected. Webb’s infrared view significantly bolsters this deep look by going even farther into the early Universe with its infrared vision.

To make the image, in general the shortest wavelengths of light were colour-coded blue, the longest wavelengths red, and intermediate wavelengths green. The broad range of wavelengths, from 0.4 to 5 microns, yields a particularly vivid landscape of galaxies.

Those colours give clues to galaxy distances: the bluest galaxies are relatively nearby and often show intense star formation, as best detected by Hubble, while the redder galaxies tend to be more distant and are best detected by Webb. Some galaxies also appear very red because they contain copious amounts of cosmic dust that tends to absorb bluer colours of starlight.

While the new Webb observations contribute to this aesthetic view, they were taken for a specific scientific purpose. The research team combined their three epochs of observations, each taken weeks apart, with a fourth epoch from the CANUCS (CAnadian NIRISS Unbiased Cluster Survey) research team. The goal was to search for objects varying in observed brightness over time, known as transients.

They identified 14 such transients across the field of view. Twelve of them were located in three galaxies that are highly magnified by gravitational lensing, and they are likely to be individual stars or multiple-star systems that are briefly very highly magnified. The remaining two transients are within more moderately magnified background galaxies and are likely to be supernovae.

The finding of so many transients with observations spanning a relatively short timeframe suggests that astronomers could find many more transients in this cluster and others like it through regular monitoring with Webb.

Among the transients the team identified, one stood out in particular. Located in a galaxy that existed about 3 billion years after the Big Bang, it is magnified by a factor of at least 4000. The team nicknamed the star system Mothra in a nod to its ‘monster nature’, being both extremely bright and extremely magnified. It joins another lensed star that the researchers previously identified and that they nicknamed Godzilla. Both Godzilla and Mothra are giant monsters known as kaiju in Japanese cinema.

Interestingly, Mothra is also visible in the Hubble observations that were taken nine years earlier. This is unusual, because a very specific alignment between the foreground galaxy cluster and the background star is needed to magnify a star so greatly. The mutual motions of the star and the cluster should have eventually eliminated that alignment.

The most likely explanation is that there is an additional object within the foreground cluster that is adding more magnification. The team was able to constrain its mass to be between 10 000 and 1 million times the mass of our Sun. The exact nature of this ‘milli-lens’, however, remains unknown. It is possible that the object is a globular star cluster that’s too faint for Webb to observe directly.

The Webb data shown here were obtained as part of PEARLS (Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science), GTO program 1176.

[Image description: A field of galaxies on the black background of space. In the middle is a collection of dozens of yellowish spiral and elliptical galaxies that form a foreground galaxy cluster. Among them are distorted linear features, which mostly appear to follow invisible concentric circles curving around the centre of the image. The linear features are created when the light of a background galaxy is bent and magnified through gravitational lensing. A variety of brightly coloured, red and blue galaxies of various shapes are scattered across the image, making it feel densely populated.]

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