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A dazzling spiral galaxy located 29 million light-years from Earth appears in “unprecedented detail” in a new image released by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
the “bones” of the galaxynormally hidden from view by dust, they are in full screen.
The galaxy, called IC 5332, stretches about 66,000 light-years across, making it a third the size of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
IC 5332 is “remarkable for being almost perfectly head-on with respect to Earth, allowing us to admire the symmetrical motion of its spiral arms,” according to a Press release of the European Space Agency.
To capture the image, the Webb Telescope used its Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, one of the observatory’s four powerful tools for investigating the cosmos, according to the release.
MIRI is the only Webb instrument that is sensitive to light at mid-infrared wavelengths, a type of wavelength that can only be observed with telescopes. outside of the earth’s atmosphere. (Infrared is the term scientists use to refer to light that has wavelengths longer than what humans can detect with the naked eye.)
The Hubble Space Telescope previously observed the galaxy in ultraviolet and visible light using its Wide Field Camera 3.
“The Hubble image shows dark regions that appear to separate the spiral arms, while the Webb image shows more of a continuous tangle of structures that echo the shape of the spiral arms,” according to the release. The images reveal different stars, depending on the detectable wavelengths of each telescope.
The difference in a side-by-side comparison of the images is due to the dusty regions of the galaxy. Visible and ultraviolet light can be scattered by interstellar dust, so dust-laden regions appear darker in Hubble’s view.
Webb’s ability to detect infrared light can penetrate interstellar dust. Together, these two views of the same galaxy reveal more about its composition and structure.
To work, all of Webb’s instruments must be kept extremely cold, because even slightly warm objects can emit their own infrared light and distort an image. The MIRI instrument stays colder at minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 266 degrees Celsius), just 7 degrees Celsius warmer than absolute zero. (Absolute zero is the lowest possible temperature on the thermodynamic scale.)
Meanwhile, Webb’s team is evaluating a problem with one of MIRI’s four observing modes.
“On August 8, 24, a mechanism that supports one of these modes, known as medium resolution spectroscopy (MRS), exhibited what appears to be increased friction during setup for a science observation. This mechanism is a grating wheel that allows scientists to select between short, medium and long wavelengths when making observations using the MRS mode,” according to an update to the Webb blog run by NASA.
Observations in this mode have been paused by Webb’s team while they determine a way forward. Otherwise, Webb, his instruments, and MIRI’s other three observing modes are fine.
Webb is operated by NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. The $10 billion space observatory, released last decemberit has enough fuel to keep taking great pictures for about 20 years.
Compared to other telescopes, the space observatory’s massive mirror can see faint, distant galaxies and has the potential to improve our understanding of the origins of the universe.
Some of Webb’s first images, released in July, have highlighted the capabilities of the observatory to reveal aspects of the cosmos never before seen, such as the birth of stars wrapped in dust.