Webb Space Telescope peers behind the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5068

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This image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5068 is a composite taken from two of the James Webb Space Telescopes’ instruments, MIRI and NIRCam. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA and CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST team

A delicate pattern of dust and bright star clusters crosses this image from the James Webb Space Telescope. The bright tendrils of gas and stars belong to the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5068, whose bright central bar is visible in the upper left of this image composed of two of Webb’s instruments. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson revealed the image Friday during an event with students at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw, Poland.

NGC 5068 is located about 20 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. This image of the galaxy’s central, bright star-forming regions is part of a campaign to create an astronomical treasure trove, a repository of observations of star formation in nearby galaxies. Previous gems in this collection can be seen here (IC 5332) and here (M74). These observations are especially valuable to astronomers for two reasons. The first is because star formation underlies so many fields of astronomy, from the physics of the tenuous plasma found between stars to the evolution of entire galaxies. By observing star formation in nearby galaxies, astronomers hope to kick-start major scientific breakthroughs with some of Webb’s first available data.

In this image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5068, taken by the MIRI instrument of the James Webb Space Telescopes, the dusty structure of the spiral galaxy and the incandescent bubbles of gas containing newly formed star clusters are particularly evident. Three asteroid trails intrude into this image, represented as tiny blue-green-red dots. Asteroids appear in astronomical images like these because they are much closer to the telescope than the distant target. As Webb captures several images of the astronomical object, the asteroid moves, so it shows up in a slightly different place in each frame. They’re a little more noticeable in images like this one from MIRI, because many stars aren’t as bright in mid-infrared wavelengths as they are in near-infrared or visible light, so asteroids are easier to see next to stars . One track is just below the galaxy bar and two more in the lower left corner. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA and CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST team

The second reason is that Webb’s observations build on other studies using telescopes including the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories. Webb collected images of 19 nearby star-forming galaxies that astronomers could then combine with Hubble images of 10,000 star clusters, spectroscopic mapping of 20,000 star-forming emission nebulae from the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and observations of 12,000 molecular clouds dark and dense identified by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). These observations span the electromagnetic spectrum and provide astronomers with an unprecedented opportunity to piece together the minutiae of star formation.

This view of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 5068, from the James Webb Space Telescopes NIRCam instrument, is studded with the galaxy’s huge population of stars, most dense along its bright central bar, along with bright red gas clouds illuminated by young stars inside of. This near-infrared image of the galaxy is filled in by the huge assemblage of older stars that make up NGC 5068’s core. NIRCam’s keen vision allows astronomers to peer through the galaxy’s gas and dust to examine its features up close. stars. Dense and luminous dust clouds lie along the path of the spiral arms: these are H II regions, collections of gaseous hydrogen where new stars are forming. Young, energetic stars ionize the hydrogen around them, creating this glow depicted in red. Credits: ESA/Webb, NASA and CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST team

With his ability to peer through the gas and dust enveloping newborn stars, Webb is well-suited for exploring the processes that govern star formation. Stars and planetary systems are born amid swirling clouds of gas and dust that are opaque to visible-light observers such as Hubble or the VLT. The sharp infrared wavelength vision of two of Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) and NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instruments allowed astronomers to see through the giant dust clouds in NGC 5068 and capture the processes of star formation as they occurred. This image combines the capabilities of these two instruments, providing a truly unique look at the composition of NGC 5068.

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