A Quintet of galaxies imaged by the JWST

I hope you’ve enjoyed my discussions of the first images released from the James Webb Space Telescope. I rarely expose my inner geek to the outside world as much as I have in these posts, but JWST and its images will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos, so I think it’s important for everyone to know a little about this phenomenal machine and its potential to open entirely new worlds of discovery.

The JWST image in this post is entitled “Stephan’s Quintet.” It’s a gorgeous image with a tangled grouping of five galaxies in the center of the frame. The image was stitched from many individual frames to create a composite that covers a field of view larger than a single image. This technique is the same as the panorama feature on the camera in your phone. I use this feature often on my iPhone when I can’t fit the entire subject in one shot. Likewise, Stephan’s Quintet occupies such a large region of space that JWST had to employ its panorama feature. The field of view of this image covers about one-fifth of a full Moon!

The leftmost galaxy in the quintet is much closer to us than the other four. This galaxy has essentially photobombed the other four, which are in the process of colliding with each other due to their mutual gravitational attraction. If you look closely, you can see that the two centermost galaxies almost seem to be joined as one. You can also see glowing trails of dust as the forces of gravity distort these galaxies while they’re being ripped apart. This is a great example of how galaxies interact, and it helps astronomers understand the ultimate fate of our own Milky Way galaxy as it is pulled toward the nearby Andromeda galaxy.

There are many other things going on in this image. Notice the multitudes of distant galaxies in the background. This is reminiscent of the deep field image I discussed at the beginning of this series. Recall from that discussion that the objects with the spikes are stars in our own galaxy. Virtually all the little yellow to orange smudges are distant galaxies much farther away than the quintet. Perhaps it’s worth repeating that each smudge contains billions of stars that are too distant to be resolved even by the powerful JWST.

Possibly the coolest thing in this image is something you can’t even see. The topmost galaxy in the image contains a supermassive black hole at its center. Astronomers were able to visualize the neighborhood of this black hole in unprecedented detail with JWST. As the name implies, we can’t see a black hole, but we can see the material circling the black hole at incredible speeds. JWST’s capabilities will certainly further our understanding of black holes!

Finally, if you’re a movie buff, you’ll recognize Stephan’s Quintet from the Jimmy Stewart movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Stephan’s Quintet was portrayed in the movie as heavenly voices discussing the fate of Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey. I think you’ll agree that the JWST image is far superior to the one they used in the movie!

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