The black background of outer space is studded with white bursts of light—some are sharp lines, while others are surrounded by a white hazy glow. In the foreground sits a star from our own galaxy, shining among a giant group of galaxies located four billion light years away from Earth: Pandora’s Cluster. After the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, we’ve been fortunate to witness images from the distant corners of our universe, but these are the first, detailed images of Pandora itself.
Scientists have been monitoring this galaxy cluster for over a decade, utilizing the most advanced technology available, mainly the Hubble Space Telescope, to get a glimpse of Pandora. However, none have achieved as much as the Webb Telescope to capture stellar pictures of the cluster, unveiling never-before-seen details. The new images were a tireless effort by the Ultradeep NIRSpec and NIRCam ObserVations before the Epoch of Reionization (UNCOVER) program, whose team of astronomers included several Yale scientists. The team captured thirty hours of data using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRcam), with wavelengths capable of detecting the earliest stars in the process of formation and nearby galaxy populations. What’s even more exciting is that the telescope captured Pandora as a megacluster, meaning the combined mass of the four galaxies creates a powerful gravitational lens to expose other very large distant galaxies in the early Universe.
While strikingly beautiful, these images are not just potential dorm-room posters or lock screens—this achievement could ultimately help us discover other hidden galaxies, further unraveling the mysteries of our Universe.