Thu. Apr 25th, 2024

In an astonishing revelation, ESA’s Euclid space mission has recently treated the world to its first full-color images of the cosmos.

This groundbreaking achievement marks a significant leap in our understanding of the universe, as Euclid’s capabilities surpass all expectations.

Euclid, our dark Universe detective, has a difficult task: to investigate how dark matter and dark energy have made our Universe look like it does today.

95% of our cosmos appears to be made of these mysterious ‘dark’ entities. But we don’t understand what they are because their presence causes only very subtle changes in the appearance and motions of the things we can see.

ESA’s Euclid mission aims to uncover the mysteries of the ‘dark’ Universe. This ominous-sounding invisible part of the cosmos makes up more than 95% of the mass and energy in our Universe.

Exploring the Dark Universe

To reveal the ‘dark’ influence on the visible Universe, over the next six years, Euclid will observe the shapes, distances, and motions of billions of galaxies out to 10 billion light-years. By doing this, it will create the largest cosmic 3D map ever made.

What makes Euclid’s view of the cosmos special is its ability to create a remarkably sharp visible and infrared image across a huge part of the sky in just one sitting.

These five images illustrate Euclid’s full potential; they show that the telescope is ready to create the most extensive 3D map of the Universe yet, to uncover some of its hidden secrets.

The images released today showcase this special capacity: from bright stars to faint galaxies, the observations show the entirety of these celestial objects, while remaining extremely sharp, even when zooming in on distant galaxies.

“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,” explains ESA Director of Science, Professor Carole Mundell. “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.”

Capturing the Universe in Unprecedented Detail

“We have never seen astronomical images like this before, containing so much detail. They are even more beautiful and sharp than we could have hoped for, showing us many previously unseen features in well-known areas of the nearby Universe. Now we are ready to observe billions of galaxies, and study their evolution over cosmic time,” says René Laureijs, ESA’s Euclid Project Scientist.

“Our high standards for this telescope paid off: that there is so much detail in these images, is all thanks to a special optical design, perfect manufacturing and assembly of telescope and instruments, and extremely accurate pointing and temperature control,” adds Giuseppe Racca, ESA’s Euclid Project Manager.

“I wish to congratulate and thank everyone involved with making this ambitious mission a reality, which is a reflection of European excellence and international collaboration. The first images captured by Euclid are awe-inspiring and remind us of why it is essential that we go to space to learn more about the mysteries of the Universe,” says ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.

The Perseus Cluster of Galaxies

This incredible snapshot from Euclid is a revolution for astronomy. The image shows 1000 galaxies belonging to the Perseus Cluster, and more than 100,000 additional galaxies further away in the background.

Many of these faint galaxies were previously unseen. Some of them are so distant that their light has taken 10 billion years to reach us. By mapping the distribution and shapes of these galaxies, cosmologists will be able to find out more about how dark matter shaped the Universe that we see today.

This is the first time that such a large image has allowed us to capture so many Perseus galaxies in such a high level of detail. Perseus is one of the most massive structures known in the Universe, located ‘just’ 240 million light-years away from Earth.

Astronomers demonstrated that galaxy clusters like Perseus can only have formed if dark matter is present in the Universe. Euclid will observe numerous galaxy clusters like Perseus across cosmic time, revealing the ‘dark’ element that holds them together.

Spiral Galaxy IC 342

This galaxy, also known as IC 342 or Caldwell 5, is difficult to observe because it lies behind the busy disc of our Milky Way, and so dust, gas, and stars obscure our view.

Over its lifetime, our dark Universe detective will image billions of galaxies, revealing the unseen influence that dark matter and dark energy have on them. That’s why it’s fitting that one of the first galaxies that Euclid observed is nicknamed the ‘Hidden Galaxy’, also known as IC 342 or Caldwell 5.

Thanks to its infrared view, Euclid has already uncovered crucial information about the stars in this galaxy, which is a look-alike of our Milky Way.

Irregular Galaxy NGC 6822

This first irregular dwarf galaxy that Euclid observed is called NGC 6822 and is located close by, just 1.6 million light-years from Earth

To create a 3D map of the Universe, Euclid will observe the light from galaxies out to 10 billion light-years. Most galaxies in the early Universe don’t look like the quintessential neat spiral, but are irregular and small. They are the building blocks for bigger galaxies like our own, and we can still find some of these galaxies relatively close to us. This first irregular dwarf galaxy that Euclid observed is called NGC 6822 and is located close by, just 1.6 million light-years from Earth.

Globular Cluster NGC 6397

This sparkly image shows Euclid’s view on a globular cluster called NGC 6397.

This sparkly image shows Euclid’s view on a globular cluster called NGC 6397. This is the second-closest globular cluster to Earth, located about 7800 light-years away. Globular clusters are collections of hundreds of thousands of stars held together by gravity.

Currently, no other telescope than Euclid can observe an entire globular cluster in one single observation, and at the same time distinguish so many stars in the cluster. These faint stars tell us about the history of the Milky Way and where dark matter is located.

The Horsehead Nebula

detailed view of the Horsehead Nebula

Euclid shows us a spectacularly panoramic and detailed view of the Horsehead Nebula, also known as Barnard 33 and part of the constellation Orion. In Euclid’s new observation of this stellar nursery, scientists hope to find many dim and previously unseen Jupiter-mass planets in their celestial infancy, as well as young brown dwarfs and baby stars.

New Discoveries, Soon

Euclid’s first view of the cosmos is not only beautiful, but also immensely valuable for the scientific community.

Firstly, it showcases that Euclid’s telescope and instruments are performing extremely well and that astronomers can use Euclid to study the distribution of matter in the Universe and its evolution at the largest scales. Combining many observations of this quality covering large areas of the sky will show us the dark and hidden parts of the cosmos.

Secondly, each image individually contains a wealth of new information about the nearby Universe (click on the individual images to learn more about this). “In the coming months, scientists in the Euclid Consortium will analyze these images and publish a series of scientific papers in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, together with papers about the scientific objectives of the Euclid mission and the instrument performance,” adds Yannick Mellier, Euclid Consortium lead.

And finally, these images take us beyond the realm of dark matter and dark energy, also showing how Euclid will create a treasure trove of information about the physics of individual stars and galaxies.

Getting Ready for Routine Observations

Euclid launched to the Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, USA, at 17:12 CEST on 1 July 2023. In the months after launch, scientists and engineers have been engaged in an intense phase of testing and calibrating Euclid’s scientific instruments. The team is doing the last fine-tuning of the spacecraft before routine science observations begin in early 2024.

Over six years, Euclid will survey one-third of the sky with unprecedented accuracy and sensitivity. As the mission progresses, Euclid’s bank of data will be released once per year, and will be available to the global scientific community via the Astronomy Science Archives hosted at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre in Spain.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

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