What looks like a freehand drawing across a sea of stars is actual imagery from a spacecraft.
On Thursday, the European Space Agency (ESA) published this new image from its Euclid mission. Euclid launched on July 1, 2023, and has reached its observational location a million miles from Earth. Euclid carries a suite of instruments that help one another reveal to scientists the nature of the universe and, in particular, how dark energy and dark matter influence the cosmos.
Once in space, missions can take months to get instruments up to speed. The new image is part of that process.
Although it is a wonky sight, the existing precision of the background stars, paired with the unnatural lassos, makes this image a beautiful mistake.
What caused Euclid to see lassos in space?
The loopy features are star trails. The creator is a confused Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS).
This Euclid instrument picks out and locks onto stars at the edge of a field of view of another instrument, Euclid’s Visible instrument, and helps keep the spacecraft oriented. The points and motions of the stars are known thanks to the work of another spacecraft, ESA’s Gaia mission, an ambitious project to map almost 2 billion stars in the Milky Way.
The lassos in the new image show that FGS wasn’t working perfectly.
“The most ‘loopy’ [lines] show an extreme case of Euclid failing to lock into place while observing a star field, resulting in an image of swirling star trails and ‘lassos’ as the spacecraft tried to home in on its target,” ESA officials wrote in the update.
The space environment can be replicated somewhat on Earth when engineers are designing spacecraft. But surprises can happen once a mission is deployed.
“In orbit, Euclid detects the true sky under real space conditions, something which is very hard to simulate before launch. Plus, cosmic rays from the Sun and the galaxy pollute observations, make the job of the FGS a real challenge,” ESA officials wrote in a September 26 update.
To troubleshoot, the team uploaded new software to the spacecraft. The mission has restarted its verification phase, which ESA officials say should be all done by late November.
If everything checks out, the Euclid mission can begin its work. Every 75 minutes, the spacecraft will point at a new field of sky. This six-year mission will hopefully produce a survey of one-third the entire sky, and help answer questions about the dark universe.