The Cartwheel galaxy is a beautiful cosmic object. A rare ring galaxy located 500 million light-years from us, its bright central core is connected to the outer ring by strands of stars, gas, and dust. New observations by JWST reveal that those dusty tendrils are full of new stars being born.
The cartwheel galaxy is a testament to how messy things can get when it comes to galaxy collisions. It used to be a spiral galaxy that became a victim of a hit and run. Another galaxy, not visible in this image, had a close interaction with it, altering its shape into what we see today. It went through a head-on bullseye-style collision with a smaller companion a few hundred million years before the light we are seeing reached Earth.
As the JWST reveals, the changes are much deeper. At the center of the Cartwheel galaxy, there is a supermassive black hole surrounded by a bright disk of hot gas and a much larger colorful disk full of new stars and supernovae. The rings are expanding outwards and they are connected by “spokes”, which are particularly visible in the JWST images. This shows that the galaxy is trying to create spiral arms once again.
The image is a combination of mid-infrared observations, in red, which highlight the presence of cool dust rich in hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds, as well as near-infrared, which show the other structures of the galaxy. The regions in blue are those with individual stars or those where new stars are being born.