James Webb telescope captures ghostly image of a celestial nautilus 32 million light-years from Earth


The James Webb Space Telescope's view of the heart of the Phantom Galaxy (M74). (Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar. Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt)

A striking new image of a spiral galaxy made to resemble a cosmic seashell out of the blue, and pink gossamer gas filaments have been captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The spiral dimensions of the galaxy, known as M74, are assumed to follow the Fibonacci pattern because they resemble those of a nautilus seashell. M74, called the Phantom Galaxy, is a galaxy in the constellation Pisces, roughly 32 million light-years away from Earth. Because of its pronounced and well-defined spiral arms, M74 is a "grand design spiral." In addition, the galaxy is squarely in the Earth's line of sight, making it a favorite target for astronomers researching the formation and structure of galactic spirals.

According to a statement from the European Space Agency (ESA), "Webb's acute vision has discovered fine filaments of gas and dust in the grandiose spiral arms which wound outwards from the core of this picture" (opens in new tab). The nuclear star cluster in the clear galaxy's center can be seen because there isn't any gas.

 The Phantom Galaxy as seen in multiple wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right), with a combined image at the center. (Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar. Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt)

The mid-infrared instrument created the image on JWST, which is sensitive to light in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

A lengthy investigation of stars, star clusters, and dust within 19 galaxies, the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PANGS) survey, is the source of the new image. Finding star-forming areas in these galaxies, determining the masses and ages of star clusters, and learning more about the tiny dust particles cruising through interstellar space are the objectives of PHANGS.

The Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys has previously taken photographs of those 19 galaxies, making JWST's images of M74 ideal for an early comparison (opens in new tab) between the two space observatories.

In M74, older, redder stars can be seen in the galaxy's center, while younger, bluer stars can be seen in the spiral arms and stars developing in red bubbles. The galaxy's gas and dust in the galaxy's arms and the dense cluster of stars at its center dominate JWST's most recent crisp infrared images.

ESA representatives noted, "This new image [of M74] shows exceptional depth." The galaxy's arms are marked by dust in various shades of red, with lighter orange parts denoting hotter material. The nuclear core and the arms' youthful stars are blue, whereas the galaxy's center's older, heavier stars are shown in cyan and green. The pink bubbles are places that create leads. It's unusual to observe so many different galactic features in one shot, according to ESA officials.

Additionally, the photos from the two satellite observatories were combined to provide an original new composite image of M74 in both visible light (from Hubble) and infrared light (from JWST). According to ESA, this composite image "demonstrates the power of space observatories cooperating across different wavelengths."

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