NASA’s James Webb Telescope Takes Exquisite Peek Inside Intergalactic Pandora’s Cluster

Feast your eyes on a cosmic Pandora’s box, courtesy NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The next-gen instrument has already shown us a glimpse of space unlike anything we’ve ever seen before—and the hits just keep coming. On Wednesday, the agency released a new image taken by Webb of Pandora’s Cluster.

It’s not a stretch to say that looking into Pandora’s Cluster is akin to peering into Pandora’s box. This region of space comprises four separate galaxy clusters that piled up over the span of 350 million years to merge into a single mega-cluster, about 4 billion light-years from Earth.

The new image shows off three of those four individual galaxy clusters. If you look closely, some of the light emanating from the individual galaxies seems to be bending—a sign of the strong gravitational interactions at play between the massive objects.

Astronomers estimate 50,000 sources of near-infrared light are represented in this image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Space Telescope Science Institute Office of Public Outreach

“Pandora’s Cluster, as imaged by Webb, shows us a stronger, wider, deeper, better lens than we have ever seen before,” Ivo Labbe, an Australian astronomer working on the project that took the new image, said in a press release. “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.”

A typical galaxy is made of tens or even hundreds of billions of stars. So a galaxy mega-cluster, as you can imagine, is packed with stars upon stars. Incredibly, these stars only make up a measly five percent or less of the mass in Pandora’s Cluster. Another 20 percent is gas that’s so superheated we can only view it in X-rays, and the elusive stuff known as dark matter makes up the rest.

Like the box it shares its namesake with, there’s more to Pandora’s Cluster than meets the eye.

It’s a feature of intense fascination for astronomers, who have been dying to glimpse the region using Webb’s instruments that are capable of viewing space in exquisite infrared vision. Scientists hope that by studying Pandora’s Cluster in finer detail, they’ll be able to learn more about the formation of distant galaxies and how gravitational interactions between such massive objects works—and how that could potentially affect the formation of new stars.

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