Euclid telescope spies shimmering stars and galaxies in its first look at the ‘dark’ universe

The European Space Agency’s six-year mission is off to a dazzling start.
This square astronomical image is divided horizontally by a waving line between a white-orange cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively blue-purple-pink upper portion. From the nebula in the bottom half of the image, an orange cloud shaped like a horsehead sticks out. In the bottom left of the image, a white round glow is visible. The clouds from the bottom half of the image shine purple/blue light into the upper half. The top of the image shows the black expanse of space. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing stars of varying sizes and colors. Blue stars are younger and red stars are older.
Barnard 33 or the Horsehead Nebula as seen by the ESA’s Euclid space telescope. It sits just to the south of star Alnitak, the easternmost of Orion’s famous three-star belt, and is part of the vast Orion molecular cloud. ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

On November 7, the European Space Agency (ESA) released the first five images taken with its premier Euclid space telescope. The images show spiral galaxies, star nurseries, and incredible celestial objects in incredibly sharp detail. 

[Related: Euclid space telescope begins its search through billions of galaxies for dark matter and energy.]

Perseus cluster of galaxies

This group picture of 1,000 galaxies in a cluster 240 million light-years away. It is positioned against a backdrop of over 100,000 galaxies that are billions of light-years away. A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles. Many of the faint galaxies in this image were previously unseen. Mapping out the distribution and shapes of these galaxies can help cosmologists determine more about how dark matter shaped our present universe over time.  CREDIT: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

IC 342 aka the ‘Hidden Galaxy’

The spiral galaxy IC 342 or Caldwell 5 is nicknamed the “Hidden Galaxy.” It has historically been difficult to observe because it lies in a busy disc in our Milky Way and the dust, gas and stars obscure our view of it. Euclid used its sensitivity and high-tech optics to capture the image, particularly its near-infrared instrument. The instrument allowed it to seek through the space dust and measure the light emitting from many of the cool and low-mass stars that dominate the galaxy’s mass. CREDIT: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

Irregular galaxy NGC 6822

This first irregular dwarf galaxy is relatively close to use in space terms. It is only 1.6 million light-years from Earth and is a member of the same galaxy cluster as the Milky Way. In 1925, Edwin Hubble was the first to identify NGC 6822 as a ‘remote stellar system’ well beyond the Milky Way. While it has been observed many times with other telescopes, Euclid is the first to capture all of NGC 6822 and surroundings in high resolution in about one hour. CREDIT: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

[Related: Your guide to the types of stars, from their dusty births to violent deaths.]

Globular cluster NGC 6397

Located about 7800 light-years away, NGC 6397 is the second-closest globular cluster to Earth. A globular cluster is a collection of hundreds of thousands of stars that are held together by gravity. According to the ESA, Euclid is the only telescope that can observe an entire globular cluster in one observation and simultaneously distinguish so many stars in the cluster. These faint stars can tell astronomers more about the history of the Milky Way galaxy and where dark matter is located. CREDIT: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

The Horsehead Nebula

This nebula is also known as Barnard 33 and is part of the constellation Orion. It is a stellar nursery where scientists hope to find multiple dim and previously unseen planets with a similar mass to the gas giant Jupiter that are in their celestial infancy. It could also be the location of many young brown dwarfs and baby stars. CREDIT: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi

Dark matter and dark energy

In July, Euclid launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. It’s on a mission of studying the mysterious influence of dark matter and dark energy on the universe and mapping one third of the extragalactic sky. According to the ESA, 95 percent 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.

“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,” Carole Mundell, ESA Director of Science, said in a statement. “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.”

Euclid will observe the shapes, distances, and motions of billions of galaxies out to 10 billion light-years over the course of the next six years.