Scientists on Tuesday released the latest images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope victorious. The latest release documents the Cartwheel Galaxy, which is about 500 million light-years from our planet, aptly named for its wheel-like appearance, complete with a central hub, frame and even corrugated light spokes. Webb also recorded two small companion galaxies alongside Cartwheel.
The new images come on the heels of NASA’s July 12 unveiling of five preliminary scenes captured by the Webb Telescope, the most powerful space observatory yet built. Since its December 25 launch, Webb’s 18k gold hexagonal mirrors have aligned to capture other targets in space, although not all images have been released. The shots included the Southern Ring Nebula, which looks like a soap bubble expanding from a dead star, and the amazing Carina Nebula, made up of swirling dust resembling jagged cliffs.
Astronomers have been studying the Cartwell wheel galaxy for decades. At first, it was examined from two ground-based observatories in Australia, first the British Schmidt telescope and then the Anglo-Australian telescope. But it is best known from the Hubble Space Telescope, which in the 1990s produced images in more detail of the galaxy’s makeup. And just as Webb revealed, in July, the existence of distant galaxies hiding from our view, his images of the Cartwheel have amplified the detailed composition of stars within the galaxy’s rings and dozens of other star systems beyond.
The appearance of the Cartwheel is the result of the collision of two galaxies that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. “We think the Kartwell wheel may have started looking for something like the Milky Way, and then this other galaxy moved through,” said Marcia Rickey, principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, one of the Webb Telescope’s science instruments. But the smaller galaxy, instead of getting stuck in the large spiral it pierced, kept advancing away from the larger galaxy. It is not visible in the image released by NASA.
Galactic collisions are not uncommon in deep space, although it is rare that they lead to such an ideal that arouses human curiosity. Kirk Born, who was the principal investigator for Hubble’s observation of the Cartwheel but was not involved with Webb, said the galaxy’s strange shape, which formed by chance during the merger, has prompted astronomers to study it for decades.
Because a smaller galaxy collided with a larger one—and directly through its center—they were less perturbing to each galaxy’s shape, and both were relatively able to maintain their character. “What changed the shape of the cartwheel was the effect of the gravitational field of this other galaxy that changed the orbits of the stars in the original Cartwell Wheel Galaxy,” said Dr. Ricky.
Dr. Born, who studied collisions of other galaxies, described the smaller galaxy as a bullet that pierced the large galaxy. After observing the cosmic body in the 1990s, scientists noticed a trace of hydrogen gas left behind the smaller galaxy, which Dr. Bourne dubbed the “smoke gun” noting that it continued to move after the creation of the new Cartwheel Formation.
The Milky Way has a volume of 1.5 times, the Kartwell wheel is still expanding, and new stars are forming inside and at its edge. However, there is no definitive answer about the size of the Kartwell wheel, when it will stop growing or what shape it will take when this occurs.
The Cartwheel photos were already out on July 12, although they weren’t available to the public until this week. Filtered to make them more accessible, highlighting bright blue-tinted young stars, red-colored particles from older stars, and space dust floating between the rings. Although colorful, Joseph DePasquale, chief developer of science visuals at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Webb and Hubble spacecraft, confirmed that stars and dust are actually detected as infrared light rather than colour.
New technology to detect this light in such detail is what distinguishes Webb’s images from those made by Hubble and the Anglo-Australian Telescope. While Hubble had some capabilities to record light in the infrared spectrum, Webb is more advanced and creates more vibrant images. The NIRCam camera, for example, built by about 25 people working with Dr. Ricky over 11 years, distinguishes the infrared colors of stars, invisible to the human eye, from each other.
When Hubble captured the wheel of the cart in the 1990s, the galaxy’s “loudspeakers” were obscured by clouds of gas that dissipated light, making it difficult to see the thousands of stars forming within. Now, because Webb can study mid-infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, he’s able to filter out space dust. This helps confirm some of the Cartwheel makeup theories formed using Hubble technology and reveals new information, such as the lack of star formation in some areas between the wheels.
“I think that combining the two telescopes, far from making one obsolete, this actually only enhances the benefits and power of Hubble because we can now make these comparisons,” Dr. Bourne said.
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