Spectacular image of Phantom Galaxy shows the power of James Webb (once again)

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The world continues to be dazzled by the remarkable capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope. Recently, new images of the Phantom Galaxy (M74), devoid of interference from gas and dust, show the incredible possibilities of space observatories working together at multiple wavelengths. In this case, data from the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope complement each other to provide a comprehensive panorama of the galaxy with a surprisingly clear image of the star cluster at its center.

The Phantom Galaxy is approximately 32 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces and is almost opposite Earth. This, combined with its well-defined spiral arms, makes it a favorite target for astronomers studying the origin and structure of galactic spirals. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1780 and then observed by Charles Messier, who included it in his catalog a few weeks later.

M74 (or Messier 74) is a special class of spiral galaxies known as the “grand design spiral”, meaning that its spiral arms are prominent and well-defined, in contrast to the uneven and irregular structure seen in some spiral galaxies. It is estimated that this symmetrical structure of the entire galaxy was probably induced by the passage of a density wave at the beginning of the formation of stars in the spiral arms.

You should know that the galaxy has a low surface brightness, which makes it difficult to see. It had already been captured by Hubble, but obscured by surrounding gas and dust. In fact, Hubble sees visible light, ultraviolet radiation, and near infrared radiation, making gas and dust opaque to the human eye.

Recently, as part of the Phangs Survey program, the James Webb Space Telescope took an extremely clear and detailed photograph of it as it can pass through these interferences. The PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Near Near GalaxieS) study is conducting high-resolution observations of 19 nearby galaxies with several telescopes, including ALMA, Hubble, JWST, and the Very Large Telescope (VLT). The goal is to understand the connection that unites the formation of gases and stars with the structure and evolution of these galaxies.

Webb’s infrared vision reveals the heart of the galaxy

James Webb can observe celestial bodies, such as stars, nebulae and planets, that are too cold or too faint to be observed in visible light, with its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). That’s why it was pointed to M74 by astronomers to learn more about the early stages of star formation in the local universe.

This crystal-clear view at longer wavelengths will allow astronomers to locate star-forming regions in galaxies, accurately measure the masses and ages of star clusters, and date different parts of spiral galaxies. This will allow them to better understand the nature of the tiny specks of dust drifting through interstellar space and how galaxies have come together over time.

That’s how Webb’s sharp vision revealed delicate filaments of gas and dust in M74’s spiral arms, which wind outward from the galaxy’s center. A lack of gas in the central region also gives a clear view of the nuclear star cluster that resides there.

The M74 galaxy photographed by the James Webb telescope. © ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST team

A spectacular combined image

As mentioned earlier, Hubble has already photographed this galaxy thanks to the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which celebrates 20 years of service this year with more than 125,000 images over two decades. His observations revealed particularly bright regions of star formation known as HII regions. These regions, prevalent in M74, are vast clouds of hydrogen gas made to glow by ultraviolet radiation from hot young stars embedded within them, and are an important target for space and ground-based telescopes.

Hubble’s sharp vision at ultraviolet and visible wavelengths complements Webb’s unmatched sensitivity with MIRI, as do observations from ground-based radio telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, ALMA. The result is an unparalleled depth and comprehensive image of the M74 galaxy.

Red colors mark dust that has passed through the galaxy’s arms, with brighter orange being regions of hotter dust. Young stars through the arms and nuclear core are highlighted in blue. Heavier and older stars toward the center of the galaxy are shown in cyan and green,” casting a terrifying glow from the heart of the Phantom Galaxy “, as stated in the press release from ESA. Star formation bubbles are also visible in pink on the arms. Such an array of galactic features is rarely seen in a single image.

At left, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope ranges from older, redder stars toward the center, to younger, bluer stars in the spiral arms—to the most active star formation in the red bubbles of HII regions. At right, the James Webb Space Telescope image highlights masses of gas and dust in the galaxy’s arms and the dense cluster of stars in its heart. The combined image in the middle combines these two views. © ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar. Acknowledgment: J. Schmidt

By combining data from telescopes operating across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, researchers hope to understand these astronomical objects better than using a single observatory—even one as powerful as Webb!

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