NASA telescopes team up to capture ‘Christmas tree’ image of universe

A dazzling new image produced using both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed one of the most detailed views of the universe to date that NASA has announced.

Created by combining infrared data taken by Webb and visible-light observations collected by Hubble, the resulting image shows a distant pair of colliding galaxy clusters through a range of light wavelengths so wide that they appear to sparkle with color.

The galaxy clusters, which scientists expect will combine at some point to form an even larger cluster, are located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, according to NASA. Although technically called MACS0416, experts involved in the massive survey have colloquially called the bundle of celestial bodies the “Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster” because of its distinctive polychromatic appearance.

This panchromatic view of the galaxy cluster MACS0416 was created by combining infrared observations from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope with visible light data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Jose M. Diego (IFCA), Jordan CJ D’Silva (UWA), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Jake Summers (ASU), Rogier Windhorst (ASU), Haojing Yan (University of Missouri)

“We call MACS0416 the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster, both because it’s so colorful and because of these flickering lights we find inside it. We can see transients everywhere,” Haojing Yan, an astronomer and professor at the University of Missouri who was the lead author of a paper reviewing the results of the joint Webb and Hubble Galactic Survey, said in a statement.

The announcement itself came alongside a handful of images of the Christmas Tree Cluster, one of which shows a particularly magnified background galaxy with a star nicknamed “Mothra,” which scientists believe existed about 3 billion years after the big bang — about 11 billion years ago. By comparison, the sun in our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, about the same time as Earth.

This image of the galaxy cluster MACS0416 highlights a particular gravitationally lensed background galaxy that existed about 3 billion years after the big bang. That galaxy contains a transient, or object that varies in observed brightness over time, that the science team nicknamed “Mothra.”

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Jose M. Diego (IFCA), Jordan CJ D’Silva (UWA), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Jake Summers (ASU), Rogier Windhorst (ASU), Haojing Yan (University of Missouri)

“Mothra” is one of 14 transients – objects in space that vary in brightness over time – identified in the study of MACS0416. Finding transients in distant galaxies was one of the research team’s main goals when they set out to combine observations from different telescopes, NASA said.

The galaxy clusters seen in the new images were among the first in a series of super-deep views of the universe that NASA called “out of place.” They were initially identified through a Hubble program called Frontier Fields, which launched in 2014, and were eventually studied more extensively by Webb’s relatively more powerful deep space observing capabilities, which were developed later.

“We’re building on Hubble’s legacy by pushing to greater distances and fainter objects,” said Rogier Windhorst, an astronomer at Arizona State University. Windhorst was the principal investigator of the Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science, or PEARLS, program, which handled the Webb observations of MACS0416.

This side-by-side comparison of the galaxy cluster MACS0416 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in optical light (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope in infrared light (right) reveals different details. Both images show hundreds of galaxies, but the Webb image shows galaxies that are invisible or only barely visible in the Hubble image.


“The whole picture doesn’t become clear until you combine the Webb data with the Hubble data,” Windhorst said.

In the images, outer space objects color-coded in blue represent the shortest wavelengths observed in the survey, usually taken by Hubble, while those color-coded in red represent the longest wavelengths, usually taken by Webb. NASA said the coloring suggests the distances between galaxies seen in the survey, with the bluer galaxies believed to be relatively nearby and the redder galaxies further away. Some galaxies that appear red in the images “contain abundant cosmic dust that tends to absorb bluer colors of starlight,” NASA said.

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