September 23, 2023

La Ronge Northerner

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JWST captures the hypnotic vortex galaxy in his gaze

JWST captures the hypnotic vortex galaxy in his gaze

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning new image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, a spiral galaxy of “grand design” caught in an uneasy relationship with its neighbor, dwarf galaxy NGC 5195. Astronomers have been waiting for this day ever since Hubble first imaged it. And it does not disappoint.

M51, officially named Messier 51, was the first galaxy to be classified as a spiral galaxy, although it is technically a galaxy of grand design rather than a standard galaxy. You may have seen Hubble’s gorgeous images of its perfect spiral arms, a hallmark of these types of galaxies. Located just 27 million light-years from Earth, its stunning viewpoint makes it an excellent study of both classic spiral galaxy structure and star formation processes.

A new James Webb Space Telescope image has shed more light on the star formation process as part of a series of observations called FEAST (Feedback in Extragalactic Star Clusters) designed to detect and study stellar nurseries outside our galaxy. The James Webb Space Telescope, which uses infrared light, can see more through the gas and dust where stars are forming than any telescope before it, so it can detect these star forming regions much further away.

The new images were captured using JWST’s NIRcam and MIRI instruments. In the NIRcam (Near Infrared Camera) image below, the dark red features are warm filamentous dust, according to European Space Agency (ESA), while the bright yellow and orange regions are gas ionized by newly formed star clusters.

In contrast, the MIRI (Medium Infrared Instrument) instrument sees light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, which captures starlight reprocessed by dust and grains to illuminate the filaments more dramatically. The European Space Agency said in a report: “The empty hollows and bright filaments alternate and give the impression of ripples spreading out from the spiral arms. The yellow merged regions indicate newly formed star clusters in the galaxy.” statement.

M51 was imaged by JWST's MIRI instrument.  By JWST's MIRI tool.

M51 was imaged by JWST’s MIRI instrument. By JWST’s MIRI tool.

Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

The “grand design” of the galaxy may seem like an argument in favor of a higher cosmic being, but it actually alludes to the “grand design” of nature. It refers to a rare type (only one in ten) of spiral galaxies with strong, defined arms emanating from a clear central region rather than incomplete or oddly shaped arms. There is of course a scientific reason for this. In the case of M51, it’s likely its neighbor — the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195, which can be seen in the Hubble image below at the end of one of the spiral arms — that gave it its perfect shape.

“The gravitational influence of M51’s smaller companion is thought to be partly responsible for the stately nature of the galaxy’s prominent and distinct spiral arms,” ​​the European Space Agency explained.

Ever since Hubble captured this very beautiful-looking galaxy, astronomers have wondered what it might look like as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope. Now we know, and you can say it was worth the wait.