The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has released a stunning smorgasbord of images of spiral galaxies. These pictures show 19 relatively nearby galaxies in greater detail than ever before.
“They’re mind blowing even for researchers who have studied galaxies for decades,” said Janice Lee at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland in a statement. “Bubbles and filaments are resolved down to the smallest scales ever observed and tell a story about the star formation cycle.”
The images were taken as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS) project, a long-running survey that uses several of the world’s biggest telescopes to examine the structure and evolution of galaxies. All of the galaxies in this set are spirals, oriented in space so we see them face-on.
Stars sparkle blue in the images, while the gas between them glows red. The bright blue haloes near the centres of the galaxies represent clumps of relatively old stars, while stars in the arms tend to be younger. This tells astronomers that galaxies tend to begin growing from their centre, with star formation propagating out along the arms like the ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond.
The images also show strange spherical holes in the galaxies’ gas and dust that we have never seen before. These odd gaps may have been left behind by exploding stars carving out empty pockets in the material.
The distribution of gas and dust is particularly important for understanding galactic evolution. By studying the red and orange structures in these images, astronomers hope to learn how that material is spread out, and thus how it contributes to star formation throughout the galaxies. The incredible detail in these new images should allow us to study that process with more precision than ever before.