See the First Dazzling Images From the Euclid Space Telescope

The European Space Agency’s observatory will map one-third of the sky over six years in a mission to understand the universe’s dark matter and dark energy

A cluster of many galaxies of varying brightnesses
Euclid's image of the Perseus Cluster, a group of galaxies 240 million light-years from Earth. The view includes about 1,000 galaxies in the cluster, with more than 100,000 additional ones in the background. ESA / Euclid / Euclid Consortium / NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi; CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

From its perch nearly one million miles away, the Euclid Space Telescope has transmitted its first five dazzling images of the distant cosmos back to Earth.

Scientists hope the high-tech telescope, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), will provide insights into the mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy, which are poorly understood, despite making up an estimated 95 percent of the universe. These early images demonstrate that the telescope’s instruments are performing well, but they also provide data about nearby stars and galaxies.

Taken at visible and infrared wavelengths, the images are unique for capturing a wide swath of sky—roughly 100 times larger than what the James Webb Space Telescope sees—in sharp focus.

“I finally saw the images at full resolution on Monday, and they really blew me away,” Isobel Hook, an astronomer at Lancaster University in England who is involved with the project, tells BBC News’ Jonathan Amos. “We were expecting Euclid to perform very well, and it really has met all our expectations. It’s a big relief and really wonderful to see.”

“We’re overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the data,” Michael Seiffert, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Euclid mission, tells Wired’s Ramin Skibba. “I think we’re going to be drowning in data for years to come.”

Euclid launched to space on July 1 and flew to its destination 930,000 miles from Earth in under a month. There, it joined the Webb telescope in an orbit around the sun at a spot called the second Lagrange point.

Over the next six years, Euclid will map the history of more than one-third of the night sky. It will study the shapes, distributions and movements of about eight billion galaxies located as far as ten billion light-years away. This map could help scientists learn more about the influence dark matter and dark energy have had in shaping the universe. By studying how light gets distorted in Euclid’s images, scientists could reveal how dark matter is distributed in space, writes the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.

“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,” Carole Mundell, director of science for the ESA, says in a statement. “Euclid will, for the first time, allow cosmologists to study these competing dark mysteries together.”

Euclid can image larger parts of the sky much faster than targeted observatories like Webb can, though Webb’s images will typically have higher resolution. Still, Euclid captures crisp images with more detail—and more galaxies—than any past survey mission.

Relative to Euclid, Webb “looks at the sky through the eye of a needle,” Jean-Charles Cuillandre, an astronomer working on the Euclid mission, tells the Agence France-Presse. And compared to ground-based telescopes, Euclid’s images are four times as sharp.

Beyond imaging the cosmos, Europe’s space telescope also uses near-infrared spectroscopy to learn about the chemical makeup and motion of galaxies and stars.

One of the new images, seen at the top of the page, shows 1,000 galaxies in the Perseus Cluster, as well as more than 100,000 additional galaxies in the background. Many of the fainter galaxies had never been seen before, and this is the first time that a telescope has observed this many of the Perseus galaxies at this level of detail, per the ESA’s statement.

Here are the other new images from the Euclid Space Telescope.

“Hidden Galaxy” IC 342

A spiral-shaped galaxy against a backdrop of fainter stars and galaxies and the darkness of space
An image of the "Hidden Galaxy," a nearby spiral-shaped galaxy, taken by Euclid. ESA / Euclid / Euclid Consortium / NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This spiral galaxy, called IC 342, was previously hard to image, because it’s blocked by dust, gas and stars from the Milky Way’s disc. But now, Euclid’s near-infrared instrument can look past the obstructions and see the galaxy’s cool and low-mass stars.

“That’s what is so brilliant about Euclid images. In one shot, it can see the whole galaxy in all its beautiful detail,” Euclid scientist Leslie Hunt says in an ESA statement. “We have a wide view covering the entire galaxy, but we can also zoom in to distinguish single stars and star clusters. This makes it possible to trace the history of star formation.”

Irregular Galaxy NGC 6822

An image of stars making up a small, irregularly shaped galaxy
A small, irregularly shaped galaxy imaged by Euclid. ESA / Euclid / Euclid Consortium / NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Euclid also imaged a smaller, irregular galaxy called NGC 6822, located only 1.6 million light-years from Earth. The telescope created its high-resolution image of the entire galaxy and its surroundings in just one hour—a feat that would not have been possible with a ground-based telescope or with Webb.

Globular Cluster NGC 6397

A photo the dots of many stars against the dark backdrop of the universe
A globular cluster of stars called NGC 6397 imaged by Euclid. ESA / Euclid / Euclid Consortium / NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This image shows a cluster of stars held together by gravity about 7,800 light-years from Earth. Due to their old age, such clusters can provide information about the history and evolution of their host galaxies. As this cluster is located in the Milky Way, it could hold clues to our own galaxy’s past. Capturing fainter stars, which only Euclid can currently do, will be key to revealing this information.

The Horsehead Nebula

A dark cloud shaped like a horses's head against a backdrop of stars
Euclid's image of the Horsehead Nebula, a star-forming region of dust and gas in the Orion constellation. ESA / Euclid / Euclid Consortium / NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Nebulas are giant clouds of dust and gas in space where young stars develop. This exquisite image captures the Horsehead Nebula, which is located near the easternmost star of Orion’s belt. Scientists hope to find young Jupiter-mass planets and baby stars in this nebula.

In the image, ultraviolet radiation from nearby star Sigma Orionis makes the clouds behind the horsehead structure glow. That radiation creates special conditions for star formation, making astronomers very interested in this region.

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