European astronomers on Tuesday released the first images from the newly launched Euclid space telescope, designed to unlock the secrets of dark matter and dark energy — hidden forces thought to make up 95% of the universe.
The European Space Agency, which leads the six-year mission with NASA as a partner, said the images were the sharpest of their kind, showcasing the telescope’s ability to monitor billions of galaxies up to 10 billion light years away.
The images spanned four areas of the relatively nearby universe, including 1,000 galaxies belonging to the massive Perseus cluster just 240 million light years away, and more than 100,000 galaxies spread out in the background, ESA said.
Scientists believe vast, seemingly organized structures such as Perseus could have formed only if dark matter exists.
“We think we understand only 5% of the universe. That’s the matter that we can see,” ESA’s science director Carole Mundell told Reuters.
“The rest of the universe we call dark because it doesn’t produce light in the normal electromagnetic spectrum,” she said. “But we know its effect because we see the effect on visible matter.”
Tell-tale signs of the hidden force exerted by dark matter include galaxies rotating more quickly than scientists would expect from the amount of visible matter that can be detected.
Its influence is also implicated in pulling together some of the most massive structures in the universe, such as clusters of galaxies, Mundell said.
Dark energy is even more enigmatic.
Its hypothetical existence was established only in the 1990s by studying exploding stars called supernovas, resulting in a 2011 Nobel prize shared between three U.S.-born scientists.
Thanks in part to observations from the earlier Hubble Space Telescope, they concluded that the universe was not only expanding but that the pace of expansion was accelerating — a stunning discovery attributed to the new concept of dark energy.
After initial commissioning and technical teething problems, including stray light and guidance issues, Euclid will now start piecing together a 3D map encompassing about a third of the sky to detect tiny variations attributable to the dark universe.
By gaining new insights into dark energy and matter, scientists hope to better grasp the formation and distribution of galaxies across the so-called cosmic web of the universe.
The release of the images in Darmstadt, Germany, coincided with the second of two days of European space talks in Spain dominated by Europe’s continued dependency on foreign launches.