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Spiral Galaxies Like You Have Never Seen Before In New JWST Images

Shells, waves, and filaments wrap around bright cores in exquisite detail.

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Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

author

Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Edited by Maddy Chapman

Maddy is a Editor and Writer at IFLScience, with a degree in biochemistry from the University of York.

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Two observations of a portion of the galaxy NGC 628 are split diagonally, with Webb’s observations at top left and Hubble’s at bottom right. The galaxy’s core is roughly centered and the galaxy’s arms appear to rotate counterclockwise. The spiraling filamentary structure looks somewhat like a cross section of a nautilus shell. In Webb’s image, the spiny spiral arms are composed of many filaments in shades of orange, with prominent dark gray or black “bubbles,” and there is a blue haze near the core. In Hubble’s image, the spiral arms are a mix of bright blue star clusters, pink star forming areas and dark brown dust lanes, and the core is a pale yellow.

NGC 628 as seen by JWST and Hubble.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team

Spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are fairly common in the Universe. And – without showing too much favoritism – they are also insanely pretty. New observations from JWST on relatively near galaxies have provided even more insights into the spiral structures in images that are beyond spectacular.

The observations were conducted as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) program. More than 150 astronomers worldwide participated in it and it uses a variety of observational facilities from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

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The goal is to understand spiral galaxies and JWST has just delivered the infrared motherlode, with bubbles and filaments of gas at incredible resolution. It allows us to see these structures at the smallest scales ever observed, delivering crucial insights into the star formation processes in these galaxies.

A mosaic of the 19 images of the spiral galaxies. They all show complex wavy strcutres roughly spirally but less defined than a visible image with a bright core in every picture
The newly released images of the 19 spiral galaxies.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team


“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,” Thomas Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.

The images show holes in the distribution of gas, created by one or more stars going supernova, pushing the gas away as well as gas filaments that expand well beyond the spiral structure that we can see with our naked eye.

“These structures tend to follow the same pattern in certain parts of the galaxies,” Erik Rosolowsky, a professor of physics at the University of Alberta, added. “We think of these like waves, and their spacing tells us a lot about how a galaxy distributes its gas and dust.”

The core of Webb’s image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 appears slightly above center. It covers about an eighth of the total area of the image. This central region looks like an angled, smashed oval, with a bright white point at the center, which has at least six light white diffraction spikes that extend into the galaxy. The outer areas of the smashed oval are bright white, yellow, and orange, and extend at left and right into the galaxy’s bar. The bar structure continues horizontally, filling most of the frame. The galaxy’s outer core and bar are filled with a blue haze of stars. The bar is crossed by filamentary orange dust lanes that have a slight curve, forming a backward S shape. This is a crop of the full galaxy. The spiral arms begin at the very edge of the frame and appear to continue in bright red at all four edges. There are more diffuse, lighter red regions that look like curved jellyfish tentacles reaching from the galaxy’s bar to the bottom of the frame. The spiral arms rotate counterclockwise. Scattered in gaps between the spiral arms closest to the galaxy’s core are bright blue pinpoints of light. There are some slightly larger dots that are bright blue scattered across the image. A slightly larger blue star with eight diffraction spikes appears toward the top right.
The stunning NGC 1365 as seen by JWST.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team


Spiral galaxies are believed to form from the inside out, so there is also a lot of attention given to the central regions of these objects. There sits a supermassive black hole and in some of these objects, they are bright. Some are so bright, they create the characteristic diffraction spike of oversaturated foreground objects.

“That’s a clear sign that there may be an active supermassive black hole,” said 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 data coming from the PHANGS team is incredible. On top of the images, the researchers also released a catalog of roughly 100,000 star clusters. That is the largest to date and they invite other researchers to get involved.

“The amount of analysis that can be done with these images is vastly larger than anything our team could possibly handle,” Rosolowsky emphasized. “We’re excited to support the community so all researchers can contribute.”

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All the high-resolution images can be accessed here.


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spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy
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  • galaxies,

  • JWST,

  • Astronomy,

  • spiral galaxies

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