Spiral galaxy captured in ‘unprecedented detail’ by Webb telescope
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A dazzling spiral galaxy 29 million light-years from Earth appears in « unprecedented detail » in a new image released by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
The « bones » of the galaxyusually hidden by dust, are displayed in full screen.
The galaxy, named IC 5332, spans about 66,000 light-years across, making it about one-third the size of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
IC 5332 is « notable for being almost perfectly facing Earth, allowing us to admire the symmetrical sweep of its spiral arms, » according to a press release from the European Space Agency.
To capture the image, the Webb Telescope used its Mid-InfraRed Instrument, or MIRI, one of the observatory’s four powerful tools for studying the cosmos, according to the release.
MIRI is the only Webb instrument sensitive to light at 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 for light that has longer wavelengths than humans can detect with the naked eye.)
The Hubble Space Telescope has previously observed the galaxy in ultraviolet and visible light using its Wide Field Camera 3.
« The Hubble image shows dark regions that appear to separate the spiral arms, while the Webb image shows more of a continuous tangle of structures that echo the shape of the spiral arms, » the statement said. The images reveal different stars, depending on the detectable wavelengths of each telescope.
The difference in a side-by-side comparison of the images is due to the dusty regions of the galaxy. Ultraviolet and visible light can be scattered by interstellar dust, so dust-rich regions appear darker in the Hubble view.
Webb’s ability to detect infrared light can penetrate interstellar dust. Together, these two views of the same galaxy tell more about its composition and structure.
To operate, all of Webb’s instruments must be kept extremely cool, as even slightly warm objects can emit their own infrared light and distort an image. The MIRI instrument is coldest at minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 266 degrees Celsius) – just 7 degrees Celsius warmer than absolute zero. (Absolute zero is the lowest possible temperature on the thermodynamic scale).
Meanwhile, the Webb team is evaluating a problem with one of MIRI’s four observation modes.
« On August 24, a mechanism supporting one of these modes, known as moderate resolution spectroscopy (MRS), exhibited what appears to be an increase in friction when setting up a scientific observation This mechanism is a grating wheel that allows scientists to choose between short, medium, and long wavelengths when observing in MRS mode,” according to an update from the NASA-run Webb blog.
Observations in this mode have been halted by the Webb team as they determine a way forward. Otherwise, Webb, his instruments, and MIRI’s other three observation modes are fine.
Webb is operated by NASA, ESA 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.
Compared to other telescopes, the space observatory’s massive mirror can see faint and distant galaxies and has the potential to improve our understanding of the origins of the universe.
Some of Webb’s first images, released in July, highlighted the observatory’s abilities to reveal never-before-seen aspects of the cosmos, such as the birth of stars shrouded in dust.
However, it also uses its stable and accurate image quality to illuminate our own solar system, and so far it has taken images of Mars, Jupiter and Neptune.