James Webb Telescope captures bright images of 19 spiral galaxies


A batch of newly released images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope show in remarkable detail 19 spiral galaxies residing relatively close to our Milky Way, offering new clues about star formation and galactic structure and evolution.

The images were released Monday by a team of scientists involved in a project called Physics at High Angular Resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS) that operates at several major astronomical observatories.

The closest of the 19 galaxies is called NGC 5068, about 15 million light years from Earth, and the farthest of them is NGC 1365, about 60 million light years from Earth. A light year is the distance traveled by light in one year, or 9.5 trillion kilometers.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched in 2021 and began collecting data in 2022, reshaping understanding of the early universe while taking marvelous photos of the cosmos. The orbiting observatory observes the universe primarily in infrared. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990 and still operational, has examined it primarily in optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

A spiral galaxy located 35 million light years from Earth.
The spiral galaxy NGC 2835, located 35 million light-years from Earth, is seen in an undated image from the James Webb Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS/Reuters team)

Spiral galaxies, resembling huge pinwheels, are a common type of galaxy. Our Milky Way is one of them.

The new observations come from Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI). They show about 100,000 star clusters and millions or even billions of individual stars.

“These data are important because they give us new insight into the first phase of star formation,” said Thomas Williams, an astronomer at the University of Oxford who led the team’s data processing on the pictures.

A collection of 19 spiral galaxies.
A collection of 19 spiral galaxies, seen head-on by the James Webb Space Telescope, is visible in this combined photograph. (NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS/Reuters team)

“Stars are born deep in dusty clouds that completely block light at visible wavelengths – something the Hubble Space Telescope is sensitive to – but these clouds brighten at JWST wavelengths. We We don’t know much about this phase, not even really how long it lasts, and so this data will be key to understanding how stars in galaxies begin their lives.

About half of spiral galaxies have a straight structure, called a bar, extending from the galactic center to which the spiral arms are attached.

“The commonly accepted idea is that galaxies form from the inside out and therefore become larger and larger over their lifetime. The spiral arms act to sweep away the gas that will form into stars, and the bars act to channel that same gas inward toward the galaxy’s central black hole,” Williams said.

Highlight structures within galaxies

The images allow scientists to resolve for the first time the structure of the clouds of dust and gas from which stars and planets form in high detail in galaxies beyond the Large Magellanic Cloud and of the Small Magellanic Cloud, two galaxies considered to be galactic satellites of sprawling space. Milky Way.

“The images are not only aesthetically stunning, they also tell a story about the star formation and feedback cycle, that is, the energy and momentum released by young stars into the space between stars,” said astronomer Janice Lee of the Space Telescope Science Institute. in Baltimore, principal investigator for the new data.

“It actually appears that there was explosive activity and clearance of dust and gas on the cluster and kiloparsec scales (about 3,000 light years). The dynamic process of the overall cycle of formation of stars becomes obvious and qualitatively accessible, even to the audience, making the images compelling on many different levels,” Lee added.

Webb’s observations build on those of Hubble.

“Using Hubble, we would see starlight from galaxies, but some of the light was blocked by dust from galaxies,” said University of Alberta astronomer Erik Rosolowsky.

“This limitation made it difficult to understand some of how a galaxy works as a system. With Webb’s infrared vision, we can see through this dust and see the stars behind and in the dust enveloping it. “

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