Euclid space 'scope's first color snaps pull back the curtain on cosmic mysteries

After a rocky start, here's looking at Euclid

Pics The European Space Agency has released the first images snapped by Euclid, its latest telescope which has been designed to help build the largest 3D map of galaxies yet.

Launched in July this year atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, scientists have been testing and calibrating Euclid's hardware before it officially begins its observations next year. 

They've had to grapple with sunlight leaking through the telescope's hull and a navigational software bug that spoiled the telescope's images for months. After this unsteady start, however, the ESA believes that all is now well with Euclid and is confident that it'll be able to fulfill its mission and capture infrared and visible light from galaxies that formed as early as ten billion years ago.

In its first set of color images, the telescope was able to image five different cosmic objects – including a faraway glimpse of the Perseus cluster of galaxies, globular cluster NGC 6397, views of the spiral galaxy IC 342, irregular galaxy NGC 6822, and a close up of the Horsehead Nebula.

"Euclid will make a leap in our understanding of the cosmos as a whole, and these exquisite Euclid images show that the mission is ready to help answer one of the greatest mysteries of modern physics," ESA's director of science, Carole Mundell – who is also a professor of Extragalactic Astronomy at the University of Bath – explained

Data collected from observations over its six-year mission will allow researchers to piece together a three-dimensional map that will provide a deep view of a section of the universe spanning over a third of the sky. By cataloging the objects and their locations in space, they hope to reveal more secrets about the hidden effects of dark matter and dark energy.

"Dark matter pulls galaxies together and causes them to spin more rapidly than visible matter alone can account for; dark energy is driving the accelerated expansion of the Universe. Euclid will for the first time allow cosmologists to study these competing dark mysteries together," Mundell added.

Euclid's first set of color images

The pictures show the different scales at which Euclid can observe galaxies. The Perseus cluster of galaxies image, for example, shows 1,000 galaxies in the ensemble, and over 100,000 other galaxies in the background. Many of these objects have not been seen before, and some are incredibly distant - forming ten billion years ago.


The Perseus cluster of galaxies ... All images: Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA

Located 240 million light years away, the Perseus cluster is one of the most massive structures in the known universe. Astronomers believe it could have only formed with the presence of dark matter. The mysterious substance creates networks of cosmic matter, where galaxies and gas glom together to form objects like the Perseus cluster.

ESA handout of the spiral galaxy IC 342 by Euclid

Spiral galaxy IC 342

Euclid's ability to analyze infrared light means it can penetrate and peer at galaxies shrouded by dust to observe their individual stars. The wide-view image of spiral galaxy IC 342, just 11 million light years from Earth, reveals its structure, and the zoomed shot shows how its stars are forming and evolving over time.


Another view of IC 342

"It is difficult to study our own galaxy as we are within it and can only see it edge on. So, by studying galaxies like IC 342, we can learn a lot about galaxies like our own," explained Leslie Hunt, a Euclid Consortium scientist and researcher at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy.

The ESA noted that no telescope other than Euclid can observe an entire globular cluster – a clump of potentially millions of stars held together by gravity – in a single observation. At 7,800 light years from Earth, NGC 6397 is one of the two closest globular clusters in the Milky Way.

ESA handout of NGC 6397 by Euclid

Globular cluster NGC 6397

In the case of NGC 6822 – an irregular dwarf galaxy residing 1.6 million light-years from Earth – Euclid was able to snap the object and its local environment in high resolution in just one hour. "By studying low-metallicity galaxies like NGC 6822 in our own galactic neighborhood, we can learn how galaxies evolved in the early universe," Hunt explained


Globular cluster NGC 6822

Finally, the Horsehead Nebula, the closest giant star-forming region, is just 1,375 light years away from Earth. Many telescopes have focused on the nebula and captured its characteristic dark swirls of gas. The visual features are caused by ultraviolet radiation emitted from a different star – Sigma Orionis – shining above it. 

Sigma Orionis is part of a loose cluster of stars that astronomers haven't fully mapped yet. Eduardo Martin Guerrero de Escalante, a legacy scientist for Euclid, and astronomer at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias in Spain, said that the telescope has unveiled even more new objects in the cluster than ESA's older Gaia telescope.

ESA handout of Horsehead nebula by Euclid

The Horsehead nebula

"Gaia has revealed many new members, but we already see new candidate stars, brown dwarfs and planetary-mass objects in this Euclid image, so we hope that Euclid will give us a more complete picture," he enthused. ®

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