The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured a stunning new image of a galaxy megacluster known as Pandora's Cluster, located approximately 3.5 billion light-years away. The image reveals never-before-seen details of the megacluster, which consists of three separate galaxy clusters in the process of merging.
Galaxy clusters are enormous structures made up of hundreds to thousands of galaxies held together by gravity. Megaclusters, on the other hand, are clusters of clusters, and are among the largest structures in the universe. Pandora's Cluster is already famous for its gravitational lensing effect, which allows astronomers to use the cluster as a giant magnifying glass to view more distant objects behind it.
The new image is a team effort between JWST's infrared vision and the megacluster. NASA estimates that there are 50,000 sources of infrared light in the view, including many faraway galaxies made visible by the lensing effect. Some of the distant galaxies appear as little arcs of light, which is due to the massive cluster warping the fabric of space enough for light from distant galaxies that passes through that warped space to take on a warped appearance.
When the images of Pandora's Cluster first came in from JWST, astronomers were starstruck. "There was so much detail in the foreground cluster and so many distant lensed galaxies, I found myself getting lost in the image. Webb exceeded our expectations," said astronomer Rachel Bezanson of the University of Pittsburgh.
JWST is a joint project from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope has captured some glorious galaxy closeups and nebula glamor shots, but the Pandora's Cluster image is called a "deep field," which means it's gazing deep into space to see distant, faint celestial objects.
It took JWST about 30 hours of observing time with its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to capture the data for the image. The image is a first-blush look at an intriguing region of space, and astronomers plan to conduct follow-up observations to learn more about some of the lensed galaxies, which will give scientists a peek into part of the early universe.
Astronomer Ivo Labbe of the Swinburne University of Technology said, "My first reaction to the image was that it was so beautiful, it looked like a galaxy formation simulation. We had to remind ourselves that this was real data, and we are working in a new era of astronomy now."
The Pandora's Cluster image is a testament to JWST's versatility and its ability to capture stunning images of the universe. As astronomers continue to study the data from JWST, it's likely that even more stunning discoveries will be made about the universe we live in.