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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 galaxyusually hidden by dust, are on full display.
The galaxy, called IC 5332, stretches about 66,000 light-years across, making it about a third the size of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
IC 5332 is “remarkable in that it is almost perfectly facing Earth, allowing us to admire the symmetrical sweep of its spiral arms,” according to a press release by 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 space exploration instruments, according to the release.
MIRI is the only instrument on Webb that is sensitive to light in the mid-infrared wavelengths, a type of wavelength that can only be observed by telescopes outside of the earth’s atmosphere. (Infrared is the term scientists use for light with wavelengths longer than the human eye can detect.)
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 regions that seem to divide the spiral arms, while the Webb image shows a more continuous tangle of structures that reflect the shape of the spiral arms,” according to the release. The images reveal different stars depending on each telescope’s detectable wavelengths.
The difference in the 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 areas with a large amount of dust 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.
In order to function, 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 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, Webb’s team is evaluating a problem with one of MIRI’s four observing modes.
“On Aug. 24, a mechanism that supports one of these modes, known as medium resolution spectroscopy (MRS), shows what appears to be increased friction during the scientific observation setup. This mechanism is a grating wheel that allows scientists to choose between short, medium and longer wavelengths when making observations using the MRS mode,” according to an update from Webb blog operated by NASA.
Observations in this mode have been suspended by the Webb team while they determine the way forward. Otherwise, Webb, its instruments, and the other three MIRI observing modes are fine.
Webb is managed by NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. A $10 billion space observatory launched last Decemberit has enough fuel to keep making fantastic images 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 the Webb’s first images, released in July, highlighted the observatory’s capabilities to reveal never-before-seen aspects of the cosmos, such as the birth of a star shrouded in dust.