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NASA’s Webb and Hubble combine to create the most colorful view of the universe

NASA’s Webb and Hubble combine to create the most colorful view of the universe

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


The result: a living landscape of galaxies plus more than a dozen newly discovered and time-varying objects.

When two major observatories combine, they reveal a wealth of new details that could only be achieved through their combined power. Webb and Hubble teamed up to study the galaxy cluster MACS0416, located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth. Their combined data produces a prismatic panorama of blue and red, colors that give clues to the distances of galaxies. While the image itself is stunning, researchers are already using these observations to support new scientific discoveries, including identifying gravitationally inflated supernovae and invisible ordinary stars.

MACS 0416 (Hubble vs. Webb comparison)

This side-by-side comparison of the MACS0416 galaxy cluster 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 contain hundreds of galaxies, however, the Web image shows galaxies that are not visible or barely visible in the Hubble image. This is because Webb’s infrared vision can detect galaxies that are too distant or dusty for Hubble to see. (Light from distant galaxies is redshifted due to the expansion of the universe.) Webb’s total exposure time was about 22 hours, compared to 122 hours of exposure time for the Hubble image. Image source: NASA, ESA, Canadian Space Agency, STScI

NASA’s Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes combine to create a colorful view of the universe

NASA‘s James Webb Space Telescope And Hubble Space Telescope They have teamed up to study an expanding galaxy cluster known as MACS0416. The resulting panchromatic image combines visible and infrared light to piece together one of the most comprehensive views of the universe ever seen. Located about 4.3 billion light-years from Earth, MACS0416 is a pair of colliding galaxy clusters that will eventually unite to form a larger cluster.

Details are revealed through the built-in telescopic power

The image reveals a wealth of detail that could only be achieved by combining the power of two space telescopes. They include a large group of galaxies outside the cluster and a set of sources that vary with time, most likely due to gravitational lensing – the distortion and amplification of light from distant background sources.

It was the first of a set of unprecedented, ultra-deep views of the universe from Hubble’s ambitious and collaborative program called Frontier Fields, which opened in 2014. Hubble pioneered the search for some of the faintest, youngest galaxies ever discovered. Webb’s infrared vision greatly enhances this deep view by going further into the early universe with its infrared vision.

MACS 0416 Mothra Pullout (Hubble ACS and WFC3 + Webb NIRCam image)

This image of the galaxy cluster MACS0416 highlights a particular gravitationally lensed background galaxy, which existed about 3 billion years after the Big Bang. This galaxy contains a transiting object, or an object that changes in its observed brightness over time, which the scientific team called “Mothra.” Mothra is a star that is magnified by a factor of at least 4,000 times. The team believes that Mothra is being amplified not only by the gravity of the galaxy cluster MACS0416, but also by an object known as a “milli lens” that likely weighs about as much as a globular star cluster. Image source: 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 are building on Hubble’s legacy by pushing into greater distances and fainter objects,” said Rogier Windhorst of Arizona State University, principal investigator of the PEARLS (Principal Extragalactic Regions for Reionization and Lensing Science) program, which took Webb’s observations.

Understanding image colors and scientific objectives

To make the picture, in general, the shorter wavelengths of light were blue, the longer wavelengths were red, and the intermediate wavelengths were green. The wide range of wavelengths, from 0.4 to 5 microns, produces a particularly vivid view of galaxies.

These colors give clues to the distance of galaxies: bluer galaxies are relatively close and often show intense star formation, which is best detected by Hubble, while redder galaxies tend to be more distant, as Webb discovered. Some galaxies also appear very red because they contain abundant amounts of cosmic dust, which tends to absorb the bluer colors of starlight.

“The full picture doesn’t become clear until the Webb data is combined with the Hubble data,” Windhorst said.

Scientific findings and the “Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster”

While Webb’s new observations contribute to this aesthetic outlook, they are taken for a specific scientific purpose. The research team combined the three observation periods, each separated by weeks, with a fourth period from the CANUCS (Canadian Unbiased Cluster Survey (NIRISS) survey). The goal was to search for objects that vary in observed brightness over time, known as transients.

They identified 14 of these transients across the field of view. 12 of these transients were located in three galaxies that are highly amplified by gravitational lensing, and are likely single stars or multi-star systems that are briefly highly amplified. The remaining two transients are located within much larger background galaxies and are likely to be supernovae.

MACS 0416 (Hubble+Webb compass image)

Image of the galaxy cluster MACS0416 taken in visible light by Hubble’s ACS and WFC3 and in infrared light by Webb’s NIRCam, with compass arrows, scale bar and color key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the direction of the image in the sky. Notice that the relationship between north and east in the sky (as seen from below) is inverted relative to the directional arrows on the Earth’s map (as seen from above).
The scale bar is indicated in minutes of arc, an angle in the sky equal to one 60th of a degree. (The scale bar is half an arc minute long.) The full image is approximately 2.2 minutes wide.
This image shows the visible and near-infrared wavelengths of light translated into colors. The color key shows the Hubble ACS, WFC3, and Webb NIRCam filters that were used when collecting the light. The color of each filter name is the color of visible light used to represent the light passing through that filter.
Image source: 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 Cluster of Galaxy, because it is so colorful and because of these flashing lights that we find inside it. We can see the transients everywhere,” said Haojing Yan of the University of Missouri-Columbia, lead author of a paper describing the scientific findings.

Finding so many transients with observations spanning a relatively short time frame suggests that astronomers could find many additional transients in this group and others like it through regular observing with the Webb.

Unique fleeting discovery: “Mothra”

Among the transients identified by the team, one in particular stood out. It is located in a galaxy that existed about 3 billion years after the Big Bang, and has been magnified by a factor of at least 4,000. The team named the star system “Mothra” in reference to its “monstrous nature”, being extremely bright and extremely magnified. It joins another star that researchers previously identified and called “Godzilla.” (Both Godzilla and Mothra are giant monsters known as kaiju in Japanese cinema.)

Interestingly, Mothra is also visible in Hubble observations taken nine years ago. This is unusual, because a very specific alignment between the foreground galaxy cluster and the background star is needed to greatly enlarge the star. The mutual movements of the star and cluster were supposed to eventually eliminate this alignment.

The most likely explanation is that there is an additional body within the front assembly that adds more magnification. The team was able to constrain its mass to be between 10,000 and 1 million times the mass of our Sun. However, the exact nature of the so-called “milli lens” remains unknown.

“The most likely explanation is the presence of a globular star cluster that is too faint for Webb to see directly,” said José Diego of the Institute of Physics of Cantabria in Spain, lead author of the paper detailing the findings. “But we don’t know the true nature of this extra lens yet.”

Yan et al. The paper is accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. Diego et al. The paper was published in Astronomy and astrophysics.

The Webb data shown here were obtained as part of the PEARLS GTO 1176 program.


“JWST Pearls: Transients in the MACS J0416.1-2403 Field” by Haojing Yan, Ziyuan Ma, Pang Zheng Sun, Lifan Wang, Patrick Kelly, Jose M. Diego, Seth H. Cohen, Rogier A. Windhorst, Rolf A. Janssen, Norman A. Grogin, John F. Beckom, Christopher J. Conselius, Simon B. Driver, Brenda Fry, Dan Coe, Madeline A. Marshall, Anton Quikemore, Christopher N. A. Wilmer, Aaron Robotham, Jordan C. J. de Silva, Jake Summers, Mario Nonino, Nor Pierzkal, Russell E. Ryan Jr., Rafael Ortiz III, Scott Tompkins, Rachana A. Bhatawdekar, Cheng Cheng, Adi Zitrin, S.P. Wilner, accepted, Astrophysical Journal.

Reference: “The Pearl of JWST: Mothra, a new kaiju star at z = 2.091 strongly amplified by MACS0416, and its implications for dark matter models” by Jose M. Diego, Bangzheng Sun, Haoqing Yan, Lucas J. Furtak, Eric Zachrisson, Liang Dai, Patrick Kelly, Mario Nonino, Nathan Adams, Ashish K. Mina, Stephen B. Wilner, Adi Zittrain, Seth H. Cohen, Jordan C.J. de Silva, Rolf A. Jansen, Jake Summers, Roger A. Windhorst, Dan Coe, Christopher J. Conselici, Simon B. Driver, Brenda Fry, Norman A. Grogen, Anton M. Quickmore, Madeleine A. Marshall, Noor Pierzkal, Aaron Robotham, Michael J. Rutkowski, Russell E. Ryan, Scott Tompkins, Christopher N. A. Wilmer and Rachana Bhatawdekar, October 32, 2023, Astronomy and astrophysics.
doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/202347556

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s leading space science observatory. Webb solves the mysteries of our solar system, looks beyond the distant worlds around other stars, and explores the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. WEB is an international program led by NASA with its partners the European Space Agency (ESA).European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, operates the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts science operations on Hubble and Webb. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, DC

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