Sharing the NASA Frontier Fields Story

NASA’s Frontier Fields program has reached a critical point.  The observations by NASA’s Great Observatories (Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra) are nearing completion, and the full data are nearly all online for astronomers (or anybody else for that matter) to study.  To herald this part of the program, the Frontier Fields were highlighted at the January American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Grapevine, Texas, where over 2,500 astronomers gathered to discuss the cosmos.  A new exhibit was displayed to help tell the story of the Frontier Fields program to the science community.  We share that story with you below.


Shown here is the NASA Frontier Fields exhibit at the 229th AAS meeting, in Grapevine, Texas.  Credit: Z. Levay (STScI)


NASA’s Great Observatories Team Up to View the Distant Universe

The Frontier Fields is a program developed collaboratively by the astronomical community.  Despite the fact that observations are coming to an end, the wealth of data being added to NASA archives will ensure new discoveries for years to come.

The NASA Frontier Fields observations are providing the data for astronomers to

  • expand our understanding of how galaxies change with time
  • discover and study very distant galaxies
  • refining our mathematical models of gravitational lensing by galaxy clusters
  • explore the dark matter around galaxy clusters
  • analyze the light from supernovae
  • study the diffuse light emitted from gas within galaxy clusters
  • study how galaxy clusters change with time

Advancing the Deep Field Legacy

Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer are building upon more than two decades of deep-field initiatives with 12 new deep fields (six galaxy cluster deep fields and six deep fields adjacent to the galaxy cluster fields).

By using Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra to study these deep fields in different wavelengths of light, astronomers can learn a great deal about the physics of galaxy clusters, galaxy evolution, and other phenomena related to deep-field studies. Observations with Hubble provide detailed information on galaxy structure and can detect some of the faintest, most distant galaxies ever observed via gravitational lensing.  Spitzer observations help astronomers characterize the galaxies in the image, providing details on star formation and mass, for example.  High-energy Chandra X-ray images probe the histories of the giant galaxy clusters by locating regions of gas heated by the collisions of smaller galaxy sub-clusters.

An example of images taken by Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra of the Frontier Fields galaxy cluster Abell 2744 are shown below.  These images show how astronomers can use color to highlight the type of light observed by each of NASA’s Great Observatories.

Developing Mathematical Models of the Clusters

By discovering background galaxies that are obviously multiply lensed, and measuring their distances, astronomers can use Einstein’s theory of general relativity to map out the distribution of mass (normal matter plus dark matter) for the galaxy cluster.

Once this mass distribution is known, astronomers can go back and look at regions where they expect the largest magnification of distant galaxies, again due to Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  From these calculations, astronomers can develop magnification maps that highlight the regions where Hubble is most likely able to observe the most distant galaxies.  This technique has allowed astronomers to detect ever-more distant galaxies in these fields and has helped astronomers better refine their models of mass distributions.

Initial Discoveries

In the first few years of the program, over 85 refereed publications and 4 conferences have been devoted to or based, in part, on the Frontier Fields, including a workshop at Yale in 2014 and a meeting in Hawaii in 2015.  Three types of science results are highlighted below.


Studying the Histories of Merging Galaxy Clusters

Frontier Fields observations by NASA’s Great Observatories, along with additional ground-based observations, are building our understanding of the physics of massive galaxy-cluster mergers.

Studying Distant Galaxies

By studying Hubble Space Telescope deep imaging at the locations where gravitational lensing magnifications are predicted to be high, astronomers are detecting galaxies that are up to 100 times fainter* than those observed in the famous Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Infrared observations by the Spitzer Space Telescope enable astronomers to better understand the masses, and other characteristics, of background lensed galaxies and those residing within a massive galaxy cluster.

*Author note: this has been updated from 10 times fainter than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field to 100 times fainter than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field due to recent published results you can find, here.

Serendipitous Discoveries

In 2014, a multiply lensed supernova was discovered, providing a key test of the models of gravitational lensing. As predicted by the models, a new lensed version of the supernova appeared in 2015.  Learn more about the appearance of a new lensed version of Refsdal here.

Looking to the Future

Both the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, scheduled to launch in late 2018) and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST, scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s) will greatly expand our understanding of galaxies and the distant universe.

JWST will build upon the success of Spitzer’s observations of the infrared universe with enhanced clarity and sensitivity, probing deeper into the universe than ever before.  Due to the expansion of the universe, light from the most distant galaxies are shifted to redder wavelengths, moving beyond the visible spectrum and into infrared light.  One of JWST’s primary science goals is to observe these infant galaxies at the edge of the observable universe.

Imagine having a Hubble-class telescope that can observe in the infrared and see greater than an order of magnitude more of the sky with each observation.  WFIRST’s expansive field-of-view – 100 times wider than Hubble’s – will allow for new ground-breaking surveys of the deep universe.

The Hunt for Jellyfish Galaxies in the Frontier Fields

Jellyfish galaxies, exotic galaxies with “tentacles” made of stars and gas, appear as though they are swimming through space. So far, astronomers studying the Frontier Fields have found several of these strange galaxies, and they are currently combing through the mountains of data to find even more.

Sometimes also known as “parachute galaxies” or “comet galaxies,” jellyfish galaxies form when spiral galaxies collide with galaxy clusters. When the cold gas from an approaching spiral hits the hot gas from a galaxy cluster, the stars continue on, but the collision blasts the cold gas out of the galaxy in trailing tails, or “tentacles.” Bursts of stars form in these streamers, sparked by the shock of cold gas hitting hot gas. The tentacles, with their knots of newborn stars, trace the path of the colliding, compressed gas. Eventually, these jellyfish galaxies are thought to settle into elliptical galaxies.

Three examples of jellyfish galaxies in the Frontier Fields. In each image, the telltale, trailing “tentacles” of stars and gas are present. The left and right galaxies are from galaxy cluster Abell 2744. The middle galaxy resides in galaxy cluster Abell S1063.

Some examples of jellyfish galaxies in the Frontier Fields. In each image, note the telltale, trailing “tentacles” of stars and gas. The left and right galaxies are from galaxy cluster Abell 2744. The middle galaxy resides in galaxy cluster Abell S1063.

Jellyfish galaxies are sometimes also seen in less massive groups of galaxies. Their characteristic shape is, however, usually much more pronounced for spirals falling into massive galaxy clusters, because the gas they encounter there is denser, and because they move faster due to the stronger gravitational pull of the cluster. The higher speed results in a more energetic collision that, in turn, increases the pressure that strips the infalling galaxy of its cold gas and triggers widespread star formation.

Astronomers have studied similar interactions in detail in nearby galaxy clusters but do not fully understand the much more violent process that creates jellyfish galaxies in very massive clusters. If the cold galactic gas is stripped very quickly these collisions could be the primary way by which spiral galaxies are transformed into ellipticals. Unfortunately, because the phenomenon is over so quickly, it is very difficult to observe. One expert on jellyfish galaxies—Dr. Harald Ebeling of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii—explains that this is why astronomers are looking at extremely massive clusters, such as those in the Frontier Fields, in their search for a large sample of these galaxies.

Aside from helping to explain why elliptical galaxies are so common in the universe, jellyfish galaxies capture the process of galaxy/gas collisions in action. Their trailing, star-forming tentacles may also explain the presence of “orphan” stars that do not belong to any galaxy.

The work to uncover the secrets of the Frontier Fields goes on. Stay tuned for more exciting news on jellyfish galaxies and other oddities as scientists continue to study the vast amount of data collected in the Frontier Fields.

The Whirlpool Galaxy Seen Through a Cosmic Lens

The Frontier Fields images, while beautiful, aren’t all that easy to comprehend to eyes outside the astronomy community. Look at them and you see streaks of light and blurry smudges mixed into a field of obvious galaxies. It can be difficult to interpret the distortions that occur as light from distant galaxies becomes magnified and bent by the vast mass of the Frontier Fields’ galactic clusters.

So here’s an interesting thought experiment. What if we could take a well-known galaxy and put it behind one of our Frontier Fields galaxy clusters? What would that look like?

Thanks to Dr. Rachael Livermore of the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute, you can see for yourself. In this video simulation, the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51, sweeps behind the Frontier Fields galaxy cluster Abell 2744. As it moves, the gravity of the galaxy cluster distorts the light of the Whirlpool, warping and magnifying and even multiplying its image.

Obviously, this isn’t a realistic video — galaxies don’t just take jaunts through the cosmos. But it illustrates how our image of the Whirlpool would change depending on where it was placed behind the galaxy cluster. Livermore used the Whirlpool Galaxy for this video because it’s a well-known, popular Hubble image, easily recognizable through the distortions that happen at different locations in the lensing cluster.

Take a look. After the intro, the image on the left of the dotted line shows the location of the Whirlpool behind the cluster, while the image on the right shows the lensing distortion underway.

In this simulation, we’ve moved the Whirlpool to a distance astronomers refer to as redshift 2. That far back, it would be so distant that the light we’re seeing from it would have started traveling away from the galaxy when the universe was just a quarter of its current age. If the Whirlpool were that far away in real life, its light would take 10 billion years to reach Earth.

Note that this isn’t how the Whirlpool would really appear at that distance. At such a distance, all we would be able to make out is the vivid central bulge of stars. But for the purpose of this illustration, the whole galaxy has been kept artificially bright.

The most impressive distortions occur as the Whirlpool passes behind the center of the galaxy cluster, with multiple, stretched, distorted images of the galaxy appearing. At this point, the light of the Whirlpool beaming toward Earth bends to go around the cluster, but can go either left or right. There’s no preference, so some of it goes one way, and some goes another, and we get many images of the same galaxy.

This location is ideal for astronomers, because as you can see in this illustration, the images become both stretched and magnified, allowing the galaxy structure to be seen in greater detail. Furthermore, because a gravitational lens acts much as a telescope lens, more light is focused our way, making the galaxies brighter.

This, Livermore notes, is a primary reason why astronomers are interested in these galaxy clusters – the chance to see the distant background galaxies in so much greater detail than Hubble would be able to produce on its own.






How Hubble “Sees” Gravity

[Note: this post is cross-posted on the Hubble’s Universe Unfiltered blog.]

Gravity is the familiar force of nature responsible for the diverse motions of a baseball thrown high into the air, a planet orbiting a star, or a star orbiting within a galaxy. Astronomers have long observed such motions and deduced the amount of gravity, and therefore the amount of matter, present in the planet, star, or galaxy. When taken to the extreme, gravity can also create some intriguing visual effects that are well suited to Hubble’s high-resolution observations.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity expresses how very large mass concentrations distort the space around them. Light passing through that distorted space is re-directed, and can produce a variety of interesting imagery. The bending of light by gravity is similar to the bending of light by a glass lens, hence we call this effect “gravitational lensing”.


An “Einstein Cross” gravitational lens.

The simplest type of gravitational lensing is called “point source” lensing. There is a single concentration of matter at the center, such as the dense core of a galaxy. The light of a distant galaxy is re-directed around this core, often producing multiple images of the background galaxy (see the image above for an example). When the lensing approaches perfect symmetry, a complete or almost complete circle of light is produced, called an “Einstein ring”. Hubble observations have helped to greatly increase the number of Einstein rings known to astronomers.


Gravitational lensing in galaxy cluster Abell 2218

More complex gravitational lensing arises in observations of massive clusters of galaxies. While the distribution of matter in a galaxy cluster generally does have a center, it is never perfectly circularly symmetric and is usually significantly lumpy. Background galaxies are lensed by the cluster with their images often appearing as short thin “lensed arcs” around the outskirts of the cluster. Hubble’s images of galaxy clusters, such as Abell 2218 (above) and Abell 1689, showed the large number and detailed distribution of these lensed images throughout massive galaxy clusters.

These lensed images also act as probes of the matter distribution in the galaxy cluster. Astronomers can measure the motions of the galaxies within a cluster to determine the total amount of matter in the cluster. The result indicates that the most of the matter in a galaxy cluster is not in the visible galaxies, does not emit light, and is thus called “dark matter”. The distribution of lensed images reflects the distribution of all matter, both visible and dark. Hence, Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing have been used to create maps of dark matter in galaxy clusters.

In turn, a map of the matter in a galaxy cluster helps provide better understanding and analysis of the gravitational lensed images. A model of the matter distribution can help identify multiple images of the same galaxy or be used to predict where the most distant galaxies are likely to appear in a galaxy cluster image. Astronomers work back and forth between the gravitational lenses and the cluster matter distribution to improve our understanding of both.


Three lensed images of a distant galaxy seen through a cluster of galaxies.

On top of it all, gravitational lenses extend Hubble’s view deeper into the universe. Very distant galaxies are very faint. Gravitational lensing not only distorts the image of a background galaxy, it can also amplify its light. Looking through a lensing galaxy cluster, Hubble can see fainter and more distant galaxies than otherwise possible. The Frontier Fields project has examined multiple galaxy clusters, measured their lensing and matter distribution, and identified a collection of these most distant galaxies.

While the effects of normal gravity are measurable in the motions of objects, the effects of extreme gravity are visible in images of gravitational lensing. The diverse lensed images of crosses, rings, arcs, and more are both intriguing and informative. Gravitational lensing probes the distribution of matter in galaxies and clusters of galaxies, as well as enables observations of the distant universe. Hubble’s data will also provide a basis and guide for the future James Webb Space Telescope, whose infrared observations will push yet farther into the cosmos.


A “smiley face” gravitational lens in a galaxy cluster.

The distorted imagery of gravitational lensing often is likened to the distorted reflections of funhouse mirrors, but don’t take that comparison too far. Hubble’s images of gravitational lensing provide a wide range of serious science.

New Interactive Explorer for Galaxy Cluster Abell 2744

The high-resolution images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope for the Frontier Fields survey have yielded a treasure trove of insights into very distant galaxy clusters.  In addition to providing astronomers with unparalleled views of galaxies that Hubble would not otherwise be able to see, the high-resolution images are providing views of distant corners of the universe that are similar to the famous Hubble Deep Fields.

To give you some idea of just how detailed and rich the Frontier Field images are, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute has created this interactive viewer to explore them yourself:

Click here to explore the Abell 2744 yourself:

Abell 2744 Viewer

To help you use and navigate the viewer, we’ve created a short video to help familiarize you with the interface and controls.  Over time, we’ll be adding more of the Frontier Fields clusters, so be sure to check back for updates.

Galaxy Shapes in the Frontier Fields Observations

We can learn a lot about galaxies by analyzing their light, through computer modeling, and using other complex techniques. But at the most basic level, we can learn about galaxies by studying their shapes.

Galaxy appearance immediately reveals certain characteristics. Elliptical galaxies contain a wealth of old stars. Spiral galaxies are full of gas and dust. Distorted galaxies have likely experienced a gravitational interaction with another galaxy that warped their structure.

The Mice, as these colliding galaxies are called, are a pair of spiral galaxies seen about 160 million years after their closest encounter. Gravity has drawn stars and gas out of the galaxies into long tails.  Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

The Mice, as these distorted colliding galaxies are called, are a pair of spiral galaxies seen about 160 million years after their closest encounter. Gravity has drawn stars and gas out of the galaxies into long tails. Credit: NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (UCSC/LO), M.Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA

The Frontier Fields project adds another dimension to this simple analysis. When we look at extremely distant galaxies with the magnification of gravitational lensing, we see new detail that was previously obscured by distance. Their shapes are clues to what occurred within those galaxies when they were very young.

Galaxies viewed through the gravitational lenses of the Frontier Fields clusters can be seen at a resolution 10 times greater than non-lensed galaxies. That means those tiny red dots that so thrill astronomers in normal Hubble images actually have some structure in Frontier Fields imagery.

Previous studies, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, The Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey, or even adaptive optics-enhanced studies by ground telescopes have shown that young, star-forming galaxies at about a redshift of 2 (existing when the universe was about 3.3 billion years old) appear to have a certain lumpiness. But without gravitational lensing, we lack the resolution to say for sure whether those lumps were massive clusters of newly forming stars, or whether some other factor was causing those galaxies to have a clumpy appearance.

Frontier Fields has revealed that yes, many of those galaxies have star-forming knots that really are quite large, implying that star formation occurred in a very different way in the early universe, perhaps involving greater quantities of gas in those young galaxies than previously expected.

Frontier Fields has also given us a better grasp of the physical size of gravitationally lensed young galaxies even farther away, at a redshift of 9 (when the universe was around 500 million years old). Observations show that these galaxies are actually quite small – perhaps 200 parsecs across, while a typical galaxy you see today is closer to 10,000 parsecs across. These observations help plan future observations with the Webb Space Telescope, picking out what will hopefully be the best targets for study.

This composite image shows examples of galaxies similar to our Milky Way at various stages of construction over a time span of 11 billion years. The galaxies are arranged according to time. Those on the left reside nearby; those at far right existed when the cosmos was about 2 billion years old. The Frontier Fields project is collecting galaxies from the earliest epochs of the universe to add to such comparisons. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. van Dokkum (Yale University), S. Patel (Leiden University), and the 3D-HST Team

This composite image shows examples of galaxies similar to our Milky Way at various stages of construction over a time span of 11 billion years. The galaxies are arranged according to time. Those on the left reside nearby; those at far right existed when the cosmos was about 2 billion years old. The Frontier Fields project is collecting galaxies from the earliest epochs of the universe to add to such comparisons. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. van Dokkum (Yale University), S. Patel (Leiden University), and the 3D-HST Team

Galaxy shape also plays a role in discoveries in the Frontier Fields’ six parallel fields, which are unaffected by gravitational lensing but provide a view into space almost as deep as Hubble’s famous Ultra Deep Field, with three times the area.

It’s well known that galaxies collide and interact, drawn to one another by gravity. Most galaxies in the universe are thought to have gone through the merger process in the early universe, but the importance of this process is an open question. The transitional period during which galaxies are interacting and merging is relatively short, making it difficult to capture. A distant galaxy may appear clumpy and distorted, but is its appearance due to a merger – or is it just a clumpy galaxy?

Collision-related features — such as tails of stars and gas drawn out into space by gravity, or shells around elliptical galaxies that occur when stars get locked into certain orbits – are excellent indicators of merging galaxies but are hard to detect in distant galaxies with ordinary observations. Frontier Fields’ parallel fields are providing astronomers with a collection of faraway galaxies with these collision-related features, allowing astronomers to learn more about how these mergers affected the galaxies we see today.

As time goes on and the cluster and parallel Frontier Fields are explored in depth by astronomers, we expect to to learn much more about how galaxy evolution and galaxy shapes intertwine. New results are on the way.

The Incredible Time Machine

Today’s guest post is by Mary Estacion. Mary is the News Video Producer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She is also the host and producer of the “Behind the Webb” podcast series, which showcases the James Webb Space Telescope as it is being built as well as the engineers and scientists working on the observatory. The video in this post highlights a topic of particular interest to the Frontier Fields project — deep field astronomy.

The production of the “The Incredible Time Machine” video is part of a year-long celebration highlighting 25 years of the Hubble Space Telescope. Because of Hubble, we can see back to hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. This particular segment includes more than a half a dozen scientists from all over the country who have used Hubble to look at the universe’s earliest days. It takes you through the history of the Deep Field Program and shows how the addition of new instruments on Hubble throughout the years has furthered our understanding of the universe’s evolution.

For the video, go here:

Taking Stock During this Hubble Anniversary Week

This is a big week for the Hubble Space Telescope. Twenty-five years ago, on April 25, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was released into orbit from the Space Shuttle Discovery. Astronomers from around the world are taking stock of the amazing achievements of Hubble over the past 25 years: observations that continually challenge our view of our own Solar System, discoveries of extrasolar planetary systems, a more complete view of star and planet formation, understanding how galaxies evolve from just after the Big Bang to the present day, putting constraints on the nature of the enigmatic dark matter, and even helping to discover that the majority of the mass-energy in the universe is in the form of a mysterious repulsive force known as dark energy. To top it all off, thanks in large part to five servicing missions, Hubble is a more powerful telescope today than at any point in its history.

Astronomers are not only celebrating Hubble’s iconic achievements of the past, they are looking forward to what Hubble can accomplish over the next five years. This anniversary week at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md, a symposium is being held called Hubble 2020: Building on 25 Years of Discovery. STScI is the science operations center of the Hubble Space Telescope, so it is a fitting location for astronomers to gather to discuss the past and the future of Hubble science. For the adventurous out there who would like to test and strengthen their astronomy acumen, watch the astronomy symposium online, where astronomers discuss science results with other astronomers.

For other events celebrating Hubble’s 25th anniversary, you can click here.

Hubble Frontier Fields Update

Part of the conversation happening around the past, present, and future science of Hubble focuses on Hubble’s exploration of the deep universe. As it so happens, April 2015 is also the month where the imaging and processing of the Hubble Frontier Fields data are half-way complete. Of course, astronomers will be pouring over the images for years to come — the science results from the Frontier Fields are just beginning.

Shown in the images below are the first three completely imaged Frontier Fields galaxy clusters (Abell 2744, MACS J0416, MACS J0717) and their respective neighboring parallel fields.

Shown here are the first three completed Frontier Fields galaxy clusters and their associated parallel fields.  Labeled, from the top, are galaxy cluster Abell 2744, the neighboring Abell 2744 parallel field, galaxy cluster MACS J0416, the neighboring MACS J0416 parallel field, galaxy cluster MACS J0717, and the neighboring MACS J0717 parallel field.  The MACS J0717 galaxy cluster image and its associated parallel field are still being processed, so we expect another version of these images shortly.

Shown here are the first three completed Frontier Fields galaxy clusters and their associated parallel fields. Labeled, from the top, are galaxy cluster Abell 2744, the neighboring Abell 2744 parallel field, galaxy cluster MACS J0416, the neighboring MACS J0416 parallel field, galaxy cluster MACS J0717, and the neighboring MACS J0717 parallel field. The MACS J0717 galaxy cluster image and its associated parallel field are still being processed, so we expect new versions of these images shortly.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Lotz, M. Mountain, A. Koekemoer, and the HFF Team (STScI)

Astronomers are already looking forward to the future of deep-field science. While much of the discussion this week is about Hubble, astronomers generally acknowledge that to truly build off of Hubble’s discoveries, we need the next-generation Great Observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). JWST is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2018. I think it goes without saying that the participants of the Hubble 2020 symposium are incredibly excited at the prospect of these two behemoths of science — these machines of discovery —  exploring the universe at the same time.

MACS J0416 Data is Complete

Observations of another Frontier Fields galaxy cluster and parallel field are complete. This time, we have new images for you of MACS J0416.1-2403. Here’s the galaxy cluster:


And here is the parallel field:


Beautiful, aren’t they? This is the second Frontier Fields cluster and parallel field to be fully imaged. You can see the first here.

Remember that to maximize scientific discovery, Hubble is using two of its instruments simultaneously to examine both the cluster and the parallel field, then observing the same areas again with the instruments switched.

Hubble takes two sets of observations, called epochs, in order to thoroughly examine the two areas. During the first, Hubble spent 80 orbits with the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) pointing at the main galaxy cluster, and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) looking at the parallel field. ACS provides a visible-light view, and WFC3 adds near-infrared light.

During the second epoch, Hubble spent 70 orbits targeting WFC3 on the main cluster and ACS on the parallel field.

Scientists are poring over the new data, and one result is already in. Expect to hear more about these observations in the near future.

Mapping Mass in a Frontier Fields Cluster

The Frontier Fields project’s examination of galaxy cluster MACS J0416.1-2403 has led to a precise map that shows both the amount and distribution of matter in the cluster. MACS J0416.1-2403 has 160 trillion times the mass of the Sun in an area over 650,000 light-years across.

The mass maps have a two-fold purpose: they identify the location of mass in the galaxy clusters, and by doing so make it easier to characterize lensed background galaxies.

Mass map of galaxy cluster MCS J0416.1–2403

The galaxy clusters under observation in Frontier Fields are so dense in mass that their gravity distorts and bends the light from the more-distant galaxies behind them, creating the magnifying effect known as gravitational lensing. Astronomers use the lensing effect to determine the location of concentrations of mass in the cluster, depicted here as a blue haze. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, HST Frontier Fields

Astronomers use the distortions of light caused by mass concentrations to pinpoint the distribution of mass within the cluster, including invisible dark matter. Weakly lensed background galaxies, visible in the outskirts of the cluster where less mass accumulates, may be stretched into slightly more elliptical shapes or transformed into smears of light. Strongly lensed galaxies, visible in the inner core of the cluster where greater concentrations of mass occur, can appear as sweeping arcs or rings, or even appear multiple times throughout the image. And as a dual benefit, as the clusters’ mass maps improve, it becomes easier to identify which galaxies are strongly lensed, and which galaxies are farther away.

Stronger lensing produces greater distortions. Astronomers can work backwards from the distortions to pinpoint the greater concentrations of mass responsible for producing such altered images.

Stronger lensing produces greater distortions. Astronomers can work backwards from the distortions to pinpoint the greater concentrations of mass responsible for producing such altered images. Credit: A. Feild (STScI)

The depth of the Frontier Fields images allows astronomers to see extremely faint objects, including many more strongly lensed galaxies than seen in previous observations of the cluster. Hubble identified 51 new multiply imaged galaxies around this cluster, for instance, quadrupling the number found in previous surveys. Because the galaxies are multiples, that means almost 200 strongly lensed images appear in the new observations, allowing astronomers to produce a highly constrained map of the cluster’s mass, inclusive of both visible and dark matter.

The dark matter aspect is particularly intriguing. Because these types of Frontier Fields analyses create extremely precise maps of the locations of dark matter, they provide the potential for testing the nature of dark matter. Learning where dark matter concentrates in massive galaxy clusters can give clues to how it behaves and changes. And as the mass maps become more precise, astronomers are better able to determine the distance of the lensed galaxies.

In order to obtain a complete picture of MACS J0416.1-2403’s mass, astronomers will also need to include weak lensing measurements. Follow up observations will include further Frontier Fields imaging, as well as X-ray measurements of hot gas and spectroscopic redshifts to break down the total mass distribution into dark matter, gas, and stars.