May 5, 2010
A new wide-field image released today by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) displays many thousands of distant galaxies, including a large group belonging to the massive galaxy cluster known as Abell 315. As crowded as it may appear, this assembly of galaxies is only the tip of the iceberg, as dark matter dominates Abell 315, like most galaxy clusters. The huge mass of this cluster deflects light from background galaxies, distorting their observed shapes slightly.
When looking at the sky with the unaided eye, we mostly see stars within our Milky Way Galaxy and some of its closest neighbors. More distant galaxies are just too faint to be perceived by the human eye, but if we could see them, they would literally cover the sky. This new image released by ESO is both a wide-field and long-exposure one and reveals thousands of galaxies crowding an area on the sky roughly as large as the Full Moon.
These galaxies span a vast range of distances from us. Some are relatively close, as it is possible to distinguish their spiral arms or elliptical halos, especially in the upper part of the image. The more distant galaxies appear like the faintest of blobs - their light has traveled through the universe for 8 billion years or more before reaching Earth.
Beginning in the center of the image and extending below and to the left, a concentration of about a hundred yellowish galaxies identifies a massive galaxy cluster, designated with the number 315 in the catalog compiled by the American astronomer George Abell in 1958. The cluster is located between the faint red and blue galaxies and Earth, about 2 billion light-years away. It lies in the constellation Cetus the Whale.
Galaxy clusters are some of the largest structures in the universe held together by gravity. But there is more in these structures than the many galaxies we can see. Galaxies in these giants contribute to only 10 percent of the mass, with hot gas in between galaxies accounting for another 10 percent. The remaining 80 percent is made of an invisible and unknown ingredient called dark matter that lies in between the galaxies.
The presence of dark matter is revealed through its gravitational effect. The enormous mass of a galaxy cluster acts on the light from galaxies behind the cluster like a cosmic magnifying glass, bending the trajectory of the light and thus making the galaxies appear slightly distorted. By observing and analyzing the twisted shapes of these background galaxies, astronomers can infer the total mass of the cluster responsible for the distortion, even when this mass is mostly invisible. However, this effect is usually tiny, and it is necessary to measure it over a huge number of galaxies to obtain significant results. In the case of Abell 315, the shapes of almost 10,000 faint galaxies in this image were studied in order to estimate the total mass of the cluster, which amounts to more than a hundred thousand billion times the mass of our Sun.
To complement the enormous range of cosmic distances and sizes surveyed by this image, a handful of objects much smaller than galaxies and galaxy clusters and much closer to Earth are scattered throughout the field. Besides several stars belonging to our galaxy, many asteroids are also visible as blue, green, or red trails. These objects belong to the main asteroid belt, located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and their dimensions vary from some tens of kilometers for the brightest ones to just a few kilometers in the case of the faintest ones.