Cropped image of the Cartwheel Galaxy as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.

The James Webb Space Telescope Imaged a Galaxy 500 Million Light-Years Away

Observations of the Cartwheel Galaxy by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope have revealed new details about star formation and its black hole.

The James Webb continues to shine as it explores the universe and takes us on a trip back in time. The billion-dollar telescope has once again proven its worth with new images of the cosmos. This time, Webb turned towards a distant galaxy located some 500 million light-years from Earth to observe a strange galaxy and its surrounding region.

Webb’s infrared instruments and massive primary mirror allow it to peer deeper into space than any other telescope before it, making it a marvel of engineering.

Specifically, JWST aims to investigate four major areas: first light, ionization, galaxy formation following the Big Bang, the birth of stars, and protoplanetary systems, as well as the origin of life.

Cartwheel Galaxy by NASA’s James Webb

Observations of the Cartwheel Galaxy by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have revealed new details about star formation and its black hole. The Cartwheel and two smaller companion galaxies are visible in this detailed image, which was created by Webb’s powerful infrared vision against a backdrop of many other galaxies. As the Cartwheel Galaxy has evolved over billions of years, this image provides a new perspective on what has happened to it.

This odd-looking galaxy, located in the Sculptor constellation about 500 million light-years from Earth, is a rare sight. This appearance results from an intense event – the collision of a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy not seen in the image. It resembles the wheel of a wagon. Whenever galaxies collide, smaller events occur between them; a Cartwheel is no exception.

Its shape and structure were most significantly affected by the collision. Besides the bright inner ring, the Cartwheel Galaxy has a colorful halo surrounding it. Like ripples in a pond after a stone is thrown into it, these two rings expand outward from the center of the collision. Astronomers call this galaxy a “ring galaxy” because of its distinctive characteristics, which makes it less common than spiral galaxies like our own.

The right side of the galaxy is a large pink, speckled wheel with an inner oval, with dusty blue in between, and the left side is two spiral galaxies about the same size. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.
The right side of the galaxy is a large pink, speckled wheel with an inner oval, with dusty blue in between, and the left side is two spiral galaxies about the same size.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.

Massive young star clusters are located in the brightest areas of the bright core, which contains a tremendous amount of hot dust. Meanwhile, the outer ring, which has expanded over 440 million years, has been dominated by star formation and supernovae. During its expansion, this ring impinges on surrounding gas and triggers the formation of stars.

A number of telescopes have previously examined the Cartwheel, including the Hubble Space Telescope. However, due to the amount of dust that obscures the view, the dramatic galaxy has been shrouded in mystery. As a result of Webb’s capability to detect infrared light, new insights into the Cartwheel’s nature are now revealed. Webb’s primary imaging instrument, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), observes light wavelengths between 0.6 and 5 microns, revealing many more stars than visible light can.

Infrared light allows us to see young stars less obscured by dust because they are forming in the outer rings. Blue, orange, and yellow colors represent NIRCam data in this image. Numerous blue dots can be seen in the galaxy, each representing an individual star or a pocket of star formation. According to NIRCam, the older populations of stars have smooth distributions and contain dense dust, whereas the younger populations outside of the core have clumpy distributions.

A large distorted ring-shaped galaxy (the Cartwheel) is illustrated in this image from the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on Webb. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.
A large distorted ring-shaped galaxy (the Cartwheel) is illustrated in this image from the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on Webb. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.

However, a more precise understanding of the galaxy’s dust requires the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on Webb.

In this composite image, MIRI data are highlighted in red. Cartwheel Galaxy regions contain hydrocarbons, other chemicals, and silicate dust, similar to Earth’s dust. The spiraling spokes of these regions constitute the galaxy’s skeleton. Webb’s image shows these spokes much more clearly than previous Hubble observations from 2018.

Observations by Webb suggest that the Cartwheel is in a very transitory phase.

It appears that the galaxy, which was likely a normal spiral galaxy before its collision, will continue to undergo transformations. Besides providing us with a snapshot of the current state of the Cartwheel, Webb also provides insight into how the galaxy might grow in the future.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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