NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has once again pushed the boundaries of space exploration with the release of highly detailed images of nearby spiral galaxies. Captured in both near- and mid-infrared light, these 19 images provide an unparalleled look at the complex structures of galaxies, revealing details that have left astronomers around the world in awe.
The images are part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) program, a collaborative effort involving over 150 astronomers globally. The PHANGS project, already rich in data from other observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, has been significantly enhanced by Webb’s contributions. These new images add to our understanding by showcasing the galaxies in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.
“Webb’s new images are extraordinary,” says Janice Lee, a project scientist for strategic initiatives at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, in a media release. “They’re mind-blowing even for researchers who have studied these same galaxies for decades. Bubbles and filaments are resolved down to the smallest scales ever observed, and tell a story about the star formation cycle.”
Thomas Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, shared the team’s reaction to the influx of data from Webb.
“I feel like our team lives in a constant state of being overwhelmed – in a positive way – by the amount of detail in these images,” notes Williams.
The Webb Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) has captured millions of stars, presenting them in stunning blue tones. These images detail both the widespread distribution of stars along the spiral arms and the densely packed star clusters. The Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) data sheds light on the glowing dust and gas in these galaxies, pinpointing areas of active star formation and the early stages of star life.
Astronomers have also been fascinated by the large spherical shells seen in the images, likely the result of stellar explosions that have carved out vast cavities in the interstellar medium.
“These holes may have been created by one or more stars that exploded, carving out giant holes in the interstellar material,” explains Adam Leroy, a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
The images also highlight the red and orange hues of extended gas regions, tracing the spiral arms and revealing patterns that inform scientists about the distribution of gas and dust within galaxies.
These structures tend to follow the same pattern in certain parts of the galaxies,” says Erik Rosolowsky, a professor of physics at the University of Alberta. “We think of these like waves, and their spacing tells us a lot about how a galaxy distributes its gas and dust.”
At the heart of some galaxies, pink-and-red diffraction spikes indicate the presence of supermassive black holes or extremely bright star clusters.
“That’s a clear sign that there may be an active supermassive black hole,” says Eva Schinnerer, a staff 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.”
The release of these images is just the beginning of a wealth of research opportunities. The PHANGS team has also published the largest catalog of star clusters to date, comprising roughly 100,000 entries. This extensive dataset opens the door for the broader scientific community to engage in analyzing these celestial phenomena.
The James Webb Space Telescope continues to fulfill its mission as the world’s premier space science observatory, exploring the mysteries of our solar system, examining distant worlds, and probing the depths of the universe. As an international endeavor led by NASA, with partners including the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, Webb is not only expanding our knowledge of the cosmos but also our understanding of humanity’s place within it.