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Pandora's Cluster

Astronomers have unveiled a captivating new deep-field image from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, showcasing unprecedented details of a region known as Pandora's Cluster (Abell 2744). Webb's lens has captured three galaxy clusters, each vast in its own right, converging to create a supercluster. The cumulative mass of these clusters forms an intense gravitational lens, a natural magnification effect of gravity, enabling the observation of considerably more distant galaxies in the early universe by using the cluster as a cosmic magnifying glass.

Prior to this, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope only investigated Pandora's central core in depth. By merging Webb's potent infrared tools with a panoramic view of the region's numerous gravitational lensing zones, astronomers intend to achieve an optimal mix of scope and precision, paving the way for new advancements in cosmology and galaxy evolution research.

"The timeless myth of Pandora revolves around human curiosity and groundbreaking discoveries that demarcate the past from the future. This aptly relates to the unexplored cosmic territories Webb is beginning to reveal, including this deep-field image of Pandora's Cluster," observed astronomer Rachel Bezanson from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who co-leads the program 'Ultradeep NIRSpec and NIRCam ObserVations before the Epoch of Reionization' (UNCOVER) aimed at studying the region.

Bezanson shared her awe-struck experience when Webb's initial images of Pandora's Cluster came in. The foreground cluster's elaborate detail, coupled with a multitude of distant lensed galaxies, was a sight to behold. Webb surpassed their expectations. This fresh view of Pandora's Cluster combines four snapshots from Webb into a single panoramic image, exhibiting approximately 50,000 sources of near-infrared light.

Apart from magnification, gravitational lensing also contorts the appearance of distant galaxies, making them look distinct from those in the foreground. The galaxy cluster "lens" is so enormous that it distorts the fabric of space itself, causing light from distant galaxies that traverses this warped space to adopt a distorted appearance.

Co-principal investigator of the UNCOVER program, Astronomer Ivo Labbe from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, mentioned that in the lensing core seen to the lower right in Webb's image, which Hubble never captured, hundreds of distant lensed galaxies appear like faintly arched lines. A closer look reveals even more of them.

Labbe lauded Webb's image of Pandora's Cluster, stating that it presented the most robust, extensive, deep, and impressive lens ever seen. He likened the beauty of the image to a galaxy formation simulation. "We had to remind ourselves that this was real data, and we are now working in a new era of astronomy," he added.

The UNCOVER team employed Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to capture the cluster with 4-6 hour exposures, totaling about 30 hours of observing time. The next step is to meticulously analyze the imaging data and choose galaxies for further observation with the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). This will provide accurate distance measurements and comprehensive details about the lensed galaxies' compositions, offering fresh insights into the early period of galaxy formation and evolution. The team plans to conduct these NIRSpec observations in the summer of 2023.

Meanwhile, all the NIRCam photometric data has been made publicly available for other astronomers to familiarize themselves with it and design their own scientific studies using Webb's rich datasets. "We are committed to helping the astronomy community maximize the fantastic resource that is Webb," said Gabriel Brammer, an investigator at the Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen's Niels Bohr Institute. "This is merely the onset of all the remarkable science Webb will produce."

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