The James Webb Space Telescope gives us a breathtaking intergalactic glimpse of life 32 million light-years from earth.
The James Webb Space Telescope has an impressive resume already.
Since its triumphant launch on Christmas Day, 2021, Webb has inspired a million future careers in STEM, sent back images of the cosmos beyond anything humanity has been able to witness before, and performed complicated functions- like unfurling its massive main mirror in space- flawlessly.
Besides inspiring future scientists and engineers all around the world, bringing a fractious society a bit closer together, and sparking the imagination of schoolchildren everywhere, Webb has also brought the scientific community together in new ways.
Revealing the power of scientific collaboration across multiple disciplines, locations and decades, the latest images of the Phantom Galaxy were made possible by an unprecedented level of cooperation between multiple space observatories, agencies, and teams of scientists.
“By combining data from telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum, scientists can gain greater insight into astronomical objects than by using a single observatory — even one as powerful as Webb!” says NASA of the collaboration. “MIRI was contributed by ESA and NASA, with the instrument designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (the MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.”
“Webb gazed into M74 with its Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) in order to learn more about the earliest phases of star formation in the local Universe,” explains NASA. “These observations are part of a larger effort to chart 19 nearby star-forming galaxies in the infrared by the international PHANGS collaboration. Those galaxies have already been observed using the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories.”
“The addition of crystal-clear Webb observations at longer wavelengths will allow astronomers to pinpoint star-forming regions in the galaxies, accurately measure the masses and ages of star clusters, and gain insights into the nature of the small grains of dust drifting in interstellar space,” promises NASA.
“Hubble observations of M74 have revealed particularly bright areas of star formation known as HII regions,” NASA says. “Hubble’s sharp vision at ultraviolet and visible wavelengths complements Webb’s unparalleled sensitivity at infrared wavelengths, as do observations from ground-based radio telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, ALMA.”
The bright blue, unobscured iris of the Phantom Galaxy already has astronomers and scientific magazines abuzz with speculation about the newest details revealed by Webb’s superior infrared imaging capabilities.
“M74 shines at its brightest in this combined optical/mid-infrared image, featuring data from both the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope,” says NASA of the above image. “With Hubble’s venerable Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Webb’s powerful Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) capturing a range of wavelengths, this new image has remarkable depth.”
“The red colors mark dust threaded through the arms of the galaxy, lighter oranges being areas of hotter dust,” according to NASA. “The young stars throughout the arms and the nuclear core are picked out in blue. Heavier, older stars towards the galaxy’s centre are shown in cyan and green, projecting a spooky glow from the core of the Phantom Galaxy. Bubbles of star formation are also visible in pink across the arms. Such a variety of galactic features is rare to see in a single image.”
“Scientists combine data from telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum to truly understand astronomical objects,” NASA explains. “In this way, data from Hubble and Webb compliment each other to provide a comprehensive view of the spectacular M74 galaxy.”
“The addition of crystal-clear Webb observations at longer wavelengths will allow astronomers to pinpoint star-forming regions in the galaxies, accurately measure the masses and ages of star clusters, and gain insights in to the nature of the small grains of dust drifting in interstellar space,” said the European Space Agency.
“New images of the Phantom Galaxy, M74, showcase the power of space observatories working together in multiple wavelengths,” says NASA of the Phantom Galaxy image comparison above. “On the left, the Hubble Space Telescope’s view of the galaxy ranges from the older, redder stars towards the centre, to younger and bluer stars in its spiral arms, to the most active stellar formation in the red bubbles of H II regions.”
“On the right, the James Webb Space Telescope’s image is strikingly different, instead highlighting the masses of gas and dust within the galaxy’s arms, and the dense cluster of stars at its core,” says NASA. “The combined image in the centre merges these two for a truly unique look at this “grand design” spiral galaxy. Scientists combine data from telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum to truly understand astronomical objects. In this way, data from Hubble and Webb compliment each other to provide a comprehensive view of the spectacular M74 galaxy.”
The fantastic recent images of the Phantom Galaxy sent by Webb provides an exciting new piece of the puzzle. Put together with previous images, they have provided the most comprehensive view yet of the faraway collection of stars, planets and exoplanets.
It is the best opportunity scientists have ever had to study this particular class of galaxy, which is known as a “grand design spiral”.
In April of 1990, after decades of planning and research, the Hubble Space Telescope was triumphantly launched. It was the product of 100,000 hours, probably much longer; the highest arc of an era of space exploration first pioneered in the time of Galileo.
Hubble was the pinnacle of space exploration in 1990, but it wasn’t perfect.
Beset by a major malfunction in its infancy, the Hubble Space Telescope- for all its contributions to mankind’s ever-growing body of scientific knowledge- left major gaps in our understanding of the cosmos.
Hubble is a powerful telescope, an incredible tool for unlocking some of the mysteries of the galaxy. But Hubble still orbits the earth.
Earth’s orbit has always been Hubble’s biggest shortfall. Whatever its capabilities, and however advanced those capabilities, Hubble has remained trapped in our orbit since its launch.
The James Webb Space Telescope orbits the Sun, which is around a million miles from Earth in the first place.
Unlike Earth’s orbit, the orbit of the Sun is so vast, were you reading this sentence on the surface of Pluto, the Sun wouldn’t even be the brightest star in the sky.
What might Webb glimpse peering past the outer limits of the Sun’s orbit?
And what new mysteries might be revealed right in our own backyard?
The Milky Way has depths as yet unplumbed by scientists. A closer look at some of our nearest neighbors- and more specifically, their moons- has already revealed a number of startling new facts about the celestial denizens of our galaxy.
What might be revealed next may be even more surprising.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)