James Webb snaps a stunning question mark in space

The image, released by ESA shows the twin protostars Herbig-Haro 46/47, which are located about 1,470 light years away from Earth.
Rizwan Choudhury
Zoomed in picture of Herbig-Haro 4647 (NIRCam image – annotated)
Zoomed in picture of Herbig-Haro 4647 (NIRCam image – annotated)

Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale (STScI)  

The European Space Agency (ESA) has shared a stunning image of two young stars in the process of formation, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). But what has caught the attention of astronomers and netizens alike is a mysterious object that resembles a giant question mark in the sky.

Herbig-Haro 46/47

The image, released by ESA last month, shows the twin protostars Herbig-Haro 46/47, which are located about 1,470 light years away from Earth. These stars are not fully formed yet and are still surrounded by a cloud of gas and dust. They are also very active and emit powerful jets of material that collide with the surrounding medium, creating bright shocks that glow in infrared light.

The JWST, which was launched in December 2021 and is the most powerful space telescope ever built, used its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to capture this image. The NIRCam can see through the dust that obscures the visible light and reveal the hidden details of the star formation process.

However, the most intriguing part of the image is a glowing red question mark that appears in the lower center. The object is not related to the protostars and is much farther away from them, possibly billions of light-years, according to Christopher Britt, an education and outreach scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute who helped plan these observations as reported by National Geographic.

Britt’s best guess is that the question mark is a pair of galaxies that are merging. This is a common phenomenon in the universe and happens to galaxies many times over their lifetimes. For instance, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with its neighbor, Andromeda, in about four billion years.

The hypothesis of the question mark

The clues that support this hypothesis are found in the shape of the question mark. There are two bright spots, one in the curve and the other in the dot, which could be the centers of the galaxies, Britt says. The curve of the question mark might be the result of gravitational forces pulling out streams of stars and gas from the galaxies as they spiral toward each other.

David Helfand, an astronomer at Columbia University, says that our brains are wired to find patterns in random data and that there are many examples of serendipitous images in astronomy. For example, another pair of merging galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2008 also looked like a question mark, just rotated 90 degrees.

Helfand says that it is possible that the question mark is not one object but two or more that happen to align from our perspective. They could also be unrelated objects that have different distances from us.

Britt cautions that estimating distance based only on colors can be misleading. The red color of the question mark could mean that it is very far away and its light has been stretched by the universe's expansion. Or it could mean that it is closer but obscured by dust near it.

To determine precisely how far away the question mark is, more observations are needed. One method is to measure its brightness through different filters and compare it with known objects. This would give an approximate distance, Britt says. Another method is to analyze its spectrum and identify its chemical composition. This would give a more precise distance but would require a different instrument than NIRCam.

The JWST has many other instruments on board that can perform such measurements. Britt says that he hopes to use them in future observations to solve this cosmic riddle.

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