Apr 24, 2023

Webb telescope captures galaxy 20 million light

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The James Webb Space Telescope set its sights on a galaxy 20 million light-years away, capturing a dazzling star-forming galaxy in images streaked with the signature of passing asteroids.

A bright band in the upper left corner of the images shows the bright, bar-shaped center of the galaxy, according to a NASA news release.

The NGC 5068 galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy, the same type as our home Milky Way. And the celestial body lies within the Virgo constellation, which is home to an enormous cluster of galaxies.

These new snapshots of NGC 5068 add to a growing repository of data on areas of the observable universe where stars are born. Captured by a variety of instruments from a range of faraway galaxies, these star-forming regions are particularly intriguing to astronomers.

There are two reasons why, according to NASA. One is that studying areas where stars are formed advances astronomers’ understanding of fundamental aspects of the universe — helping to unlock the mysteries surrounding how galaxies form.

"By observing the formation of stars in nearby galaxies, astronomers hope to kick-start major scientific advances with some of the first available data from Webb," according to NASA.

The other reason these snapshots pique scientists’ interest is that they build on an existing trove of data collected by instruments, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Piecing together all that data can "give astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to piece together the minutiae of star formation," according to NASA, and brings scientists closer to new discoveries.

Other data in that catalog include images of the Phantom Galaxy M74 and another dazzling spiral galaxy called IC 5332.

Webb collected two new images of the NGC 5068 galaxy that were released June 2 — one captured by the telescope's Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, and the other by the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI.

The MIRI image most clearly shows the "dusty structure" of NGC 5068 and the orbs of gas that contain clusters of new stars, according to NASA. In this image, three asteroid trails are also easily discernible.

The trails appear as mere dots, with one lying directly below the bar-shaped center of NGC 5068 and two more in the bottom-left corner, according to the space agency.

MIRI is the only Webb instrument that is sensitive to light in mid-infrared wavelengths, a type of wavelength that can only be observed by telescopes outside of Earth's atmosphere. (Infrared is the term scientists use to refer to light that has wavelengths longer than humans can detect with the naked eye.)

The other image captured by NIRCam shows the ghostly gas clouds from the MIRI image illuminated in bright red. The spectrum that the NIRCam instrument uses can see past obstructive elements such as gas and dust to clearly image the galaxy's stars, according to NASA.

"Dense and bright clouds of dust lie along the path of the spiral arms: These are H II regions, collections of hydrogen gas where new stars are forming," the space agency said in a news release. "The young, energetic stars ionize the hydrogen around them, creating this glow represented in red."

The Webb telescope is operated by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The $10 billion space observatory, launched last December, has enough fuel to keep taking fantastic images for about 20 years.

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