NASA: James Webb shows impressive structures in 19 nearby spiral galaxies | News

NASA: James Webb shows impressive structures in 19 nearby spiral galaxies | News
NASA: James Webb shows impressive structures in 19 nearby spiral galaxies | News

It is very easy to be hypnotized by these spiral galaxies. Follow its clearly defined arms, brimming with stars, to its center, where perhaps there are ancient star clusters and, sometimes, an active supermassive black hole. Only NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope can provide highly detailed scenes of nearby galaxies with a combination of near-infrared and mid-infrared light, as seen in these images.

These Webb images are part of a vast, long-running project: the Physics at High Angular Resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS) program, which is supported by more than 150 astronomers around the world. . Before Webb captured these images, PHANGS was already brimming with data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Very Large Telescope’s (VLT) Multi-Object Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), and the array of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array radio telescopes, which includes observations in ultraviolet, visible and radio light. Webb’s contributions in the near-infrared and mid-infrared have provided several new pieces of the puzzle.

“The new Webb images are extraordinary,” said Janice Lee, project scientist for strategic initiatives at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore. “They are mind-blowing even to researchers who have studied these same galaxies for decades. “The bubbles and filaments have resolution down to the smallest scales ever observed, and tell a story about the star formation cycle.”

Excitement quickly spread throughout the research team as Webb’s images poured in. “I feel like our team is living in a constant state of overwhelm, in a positive sense, by the amount of detail in these images,” added Thomas Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Follow the arms of the spiral

In these images, Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam) captured millions of stars, glowing in blue hues. Some stars are spread across the arms of the spiral, but others are tightly packed in star clusters.

Data from the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) highlights the glowing dust, showing us where it is located, around and between stars. Stars that have not yet fully formed also stand out: they are still encapsulated within the gas and dust that nourish their growth, like bright red seeds at the tips of dust peaks. “This is where we can find the newest and most massive stars in galaxies,” said Erik Rosolowsky, a physics professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

What else amazed astronomers? Webb’s images show large spherical shells within the gas and dust. “These holes could have been created by one or more stars exploding, creating giant holes in the interstellar material,” explained Adam Leroy, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Now, let’s trace the spiral arms to find extensive regions of gas that look red and orange. “These structures tend to follow the same pattern in certain parts of galaxies,” Rosolowsky added. “We think of them as waves, and their spacing tells us a lot about how a galaxy distributes its gas and dust.” Studying these structures will provide key information about how galaxies develop, maintain and interrupt their star formation.

Submerged inside

Evidence shows that galaxies grow from the inside out: star formation begins in the cores of galaxies and spreads along their arms, spiraling away from the center. The farther a star is from the galaxy’s core, the more likely it is to be younger. In contrast, the regions near the nuclei that appear to be illuminated by a blue spotlight are older populations of stars.

What happens to the nuclei of galaxies that are full of pink and red diffraction peaks? “That’s a clear sign that there could be an active supermassive black hole,” said Eva Schinnerer, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “Or, the star clusters toward the center are so bright that they have saturated that area of ​​the image.”

Bulk investigations

There are many avenues of research that scientists can begin to pursue with the combined PHANGS data, but the unprecedented number of stars resolved by Webb is an excellent starting point. “Stars can exist for billions or millions of millions of years,” Leroy said. “By accurately cataloging all types of stars, we can build a more reliable and holistic view of their life cycles.”

In addition to immediately publishing these images, the PHANGS team has also published the largest catalog to date of around 100,000 star clusters. “The amount of analysis that can be performed on these images is far greater than anything our team could handle,” Rosolowsky emphasized. “We are excited to support the community so that all researchers can contribute.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving the mysteries of our solar system, seeing beyond distant worlds around other stars, and exploring the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners: ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).


Published: 1/4/2024

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