NASA’s Frontier Fields is a program to capture new deep-field images across the electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to infrared light. NASA’s Great Observatories — the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Spitzer Space Telescope — are taking the lead on this ambitious effort. Other observatories around the world, including the Jansky Very Large Array (JVLA) in New Mexico, which observes radio light, also contribute considerable time to observing the new deep fields.
A new Frontier Fields release from the Chandra X-ray Center highlights the energetic chaos that occurs when massive galaxy clusters collide. The two new images combine data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the JVLA radio dishes. Astronomers are interested in understanding how merging galaxy clusters grow with time and what happens to the galaxies, their gas, and the associated, enigmatic dark matter.
The images of these galaxy clusters (MACS J0416 and MACS J0717) are described below. Read the full release from the Chandra X-ray Center here.
The object known as MACS J0416 is actually composed of two clusters of galaxies that will eventually merge to create a single larger massive galaxy cluster. The image of MACS J0416 contains Chandra X-ray data (blue), Hubble Space Telescope data (red, green, and blue), and a halo of radio light imaged by the JVLA (pink).
According to a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, the cores of the two galaxy clusters have likely not passed through each other yet, indicating an early phase of their merger.
Astronomers discovered this by studying the cluster’s appearance in visible and X-ray light. Hubble’s visible-light images show both the galaxies themselves and their gravitational lensing effects, helping us pinpoint the location of dark matter in the cluster. X-ray observations from Chandra show us the location of the heated gas. In MACS J0416, the galaxies and their dark matter are still lined up with the heated gas, meaning their merger has not progressed very far yet. In other observations of merging galaxy clusters, such as the Bullet Cluster, gas heated by the shock of collision eventually separates from the dark matter.
The massive galaxy cluster MACS J0717 results from a merger of four clusters of galaxies. The image of MACS J0717 contains Chandra X-ray data (blue), Hubble Space Telescope data (red, green, and blue), and JVLA radio data (pink). Unlike MACS J0416, MACS J0717 appears to have been merging for quite some time. The evidence of merging includes the separated knots of X-rays (blue) formed by the collision of high concentrations of gas, and the giant arcs of radio emission (pink) stretched and distorted by the merger.
MACS J0717 is also the largest known cosmic lens, and thus a prime candidate for observing distant objects magnified by gravitational lensing. The galaxy clusters in MACS J0717 are still merging and are not yet confined to a smaller area — leaving a large total mass over a relatively large area of the sky. This large gravitational lens can magnify and uncover galaxies of the early universe, a key goal of the Frontier Fields project.
Often, observations of these distant, young galaxies only capture the brightest objects. But observations of MACS J0717 demonstrate how Frontier Fields can be used to view some of the universe’s more ordinary early galaxies. In a paper published in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers discovered seven gravitationally lensed radio sources in MACS J0717. Many of these galaxies would not be observable without the benefit of magnification due to gravitational lensing. The gravitational lensing of massive clusters in radio waves provides a new view of these radio sources, which are thought to be common — but not well-studied — star-forming galaxies in the early universe.
Hubble has also observed distant galaxies using gravitational lensing. An example is noted here. By using a combination of telescopes, and a combination of different wavelength observations, the Frontier Fields project is providing a broader and deeper view into the galaxies of the early universe.