A new image of the galaxy cluster known as “El Gordo” is revealing distant and dusty objects never seen before, and providing a bounty of fresh science. The infrared image, taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, displays a variety of unusual, distorted background galaxies that were only hinted at in previous Hubble Space Telescope images.
El Gordo is a cluster of hundreds of galaxies that existed when the universe was 6.2 billion years old, making it a “cosmic teenager.” It’s the most massive cluster known to exist at that time. (“El Gordo” is Spanish for the “Fat One.”)
The team targeted El Gordo because it acts as a natural, cosmic magnifying glass through a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing. Its powerful gravity bends and distorts the light of objects lying behind it, much like an eyeglass lens.
“Lensing by El Gordo boosts the brightness and magnifies the sizes of distant galaxies. This lensing effect provides a unique window into the distant universe,” said Brenda Frye of the University of Arizona. Frye is co-lead of the PEARLS-Clusters branch of the Prime Extragalactic Areas for Reionization and Lensing Science (PEARLS) team and lead author of one of four papers analyzing the El Gordo observations.
Within the image of El Gordo, one of the most striking features is a bright arc represented in red at upper right. Nicknamed “El Anzuelo” (The Fishhook) by one of Frye’s students, the light from this galaxy took 10.6 billion years to reach Earth. Its distinctive red color is due to a combination of reddening from dust within the galaxy itself and cosmological redshift due to its extreme distance.
By correcting for the distortions created by lensing, the team was able to determine that the background galaxy is disk-shaped but only 26,000 light-years in diameter — about one-fourth the size of the Milky Way. They also were able to study the galaxy’s star formation history, finding that star formation was already rapidly declining in the…