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A dazzling spiral galaxy 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 galaxyusually hidden from view by dust, are displayed in full.
The galaxy, called IC 5332, is about 66,000 light-years wide, about a third the size of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
IC 5332 is “remarkable because it lies almost perfectly directly opposite Earth, allowing us to admire the symmetrical sweep of its spiral arms,” according to a press release from 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 to survey the cosmos, according to the release.
MIRI is the only Webb instrument sensitive to light at mid-infrared wavelengths, a type of wavelength that can only be seen through telescopes outside Earth’s atmosphere. (Infrared is the term scientists use to refer to light with a wavelength longer than humans can detect with the naked eye.)
The Hubble Space Telescope has previously observed the galaxy in ultraviolet and visible light using its Wide Field Camera 3.
“The Hubble image shows dark areas that appear to separate the spiral arms, while the Webb image shows more of a continuous jumble of structures that mirror the shape of the spiral arms,” the release said. 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. Ultraviolet and visible light can be scattered by interstellar dust, so the dust-heavy areas appear darker in Hubble’s eyes.
Webb’s ability to detect infrared light can penetrate interstellar dust. Together, these two images of the same galaxy reveal more about its composition and structure.
To function, all of Webb’s instruments must be kept extremely cold, as even slightly warm objects can emit their own infrared light and distort an image. The MIRI instrument is kept coldest 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, the Webb team is assessing a problem with one of MIRI’s four observation modes.
“On Aug. 24, a mechanism that supports one of these modes, known as medium-resolution spectroscopy (MRS), showed what appears to be increased friction while being set up for a scientific observation. This mechanism is a grid wheel that allows scientists to choose between short, average and longer wavelengths when making observations using the MRS mode,” according to an update to NASA’s Webb blog.
Sightings in this mode have been interrupted by the Webb team as they determine a path forward. Otherwise, Webb, his instruments, and MIRI’s other three observation modes are fine.
Webb is operated by NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. The $10 billion space observatory, which launched last December, has enough fuel to take fantastic photos for about 20 years.
Compared to other telescopes, the space observatory’s massive mirror can see faint, distant galaxies and has the potential to expand our understanding of the origin of the universe.
Some of Webb’s first images, released in July, have highlighted the observatory’s abilities to reveal previously unseen aspects of the cosmos, such as the birth of stars shrouded in dust.
However, it also uses its stable and accurate image quality to illuminate our own solar system and has so far captured images of Mars, Jupiter and Neptune.