heic2310 — Photo Release
Webb, Hubble Combine to Create Most Colourful View of Universe
The result: a vivid landscape of galaxies along with more than a dozen newly found time-varying objects
9 November 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.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona. Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble and Webb science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, J. Diego (Instituto de Física de Cantabria, Spain), J. D’Silva (U. Western Australia), A. Koekemoer (STScI), J. Summers & R. Windhorst (ASU), and H. Yan (U. Missouri)
- ESA Webb Seeing Farther Interactive Brochure
- Release on ESA/Webb website
- Release on STScI website (Webb release)
- Release on STScI website (Hubble release)
- Release on NASA website
- Yan et al. paper (The Astrophysical Journal)
- Diego et al. paper (Astronomy & Astrophysics)
ESA/Webb Chief Science Communications Officer
ESA Newsroom and Media Relations Office
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