NASA shares hypnotic James Webb images of spiral galaxy M51

The spiral galaxy M51's prominent spiral arms were formed partly due to violent interactions with the nearby dwarf galaxy, NGC 5195.
Chris Young
One of the images of spiral galaxy M51.
One of the images of spiral galaxy M51, captured by Webb's MIRI instrument.

ESA / Webb / NASA & CSA / A. Adamo 

NASA and ESA released a set of stunning new James Webb observations of the Whirlpool galaxy NGC 5194.

The galaxy NGC 5194, also known as M51, is located approximately 27 million light-years away from Earth and it is known for its spectacular features — the Hubble Space Telescope has also captured a series of mesmerizing images of the distant galaxy.

M51's aesthetic structure is partially the result of a violent past — its clearly defined spiral arms were formed, in part, due to violent interactions between the galaxy and its nearest neighbor, the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195.

NASA, ESA share hypnotic James Webb spiral galaxy images

NGC 5195 is a rare example of a spiral galaxy with so-called grand-design spirals. Roughly one-tenth of all known spiral galaxies feature these types of spirals, which extend prominently from the galaxy's core.

"Unlike the menagerie of weird and wonderful spiral galaxies with ragged or disrupted spiral arms, grand-design spiral galaxies boast prominent, well-developed spiral arms like the ones showcased in this image," ESA explained in a press statement alongside the images.

The image at the top of the page was captured by Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). In it, newly-formed star clusters are accentuated as yellow compact regions.

The image below, meanwhile, is a composite with integrated data from both Webb's MIRI and Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), each of which reveals and highlights different cosmic features that are invisible to the naked eye.

NASA shares hypnotic James Webb images of spiral galaxy M51
The composite image of NGC 5194 combines data from Webb's NIRCam and MIRI instruments.

The NIRCam observation of the spiral galaxy, for example, accentuates the vast swathes of warm filamentary dust in the region.

These are highlighted as dark red features in the composite below. Orange and yellow dots in the image show ionized gas from newly formed star clusters.

NASA shares hypnotic James Webb images of spiral galaxy M51
The NIRCam image of M51 accentuates the warm filamentary dust floating around the galaxy's spiral arms.

The image above shows only the NIRCam data. In a statement describing this image, ESA explains that "stellar feedback has a dramatic effect on the medium of the galaxy and [it] creates a complex network of bright knots as well as cavernous black bubbles."

Stellar feedback describes the outpouring of energy from stars into the regions in which they are formed. It is a crucial component of galactic evolution and one that is "vital to building accurate universal models of star formation," according to ESA.

Squabbling, cosmic neighbors

The new M51 observations are part of the FEAST (Feedback in Emerging extrAgalactic Star clusTers) program, which is investigating stellar nurseries beyond our own galaxy.

According to ESA, they "were designed to shed light on the interplay between stellar feedback and star formation in environments outside our own galaxy."

And they couldn't have picked a much better candidate.

M51's prominent spiral arms are thought to have formed partly due to the influence of its galactic neighbor, the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195. Back in 2005, the Hubble Space Telescope captured an image of the two galaxies.

The smaller dwarf galaxy is thought to have been gliding around the Whirlpool galaxy for hundreds of millions of years. When it flies near M51, its gravitational force creates waves within the spiral galaxy's disk.

These waves then pass through orbiting gas clouds within the disk, squeezing the gaseous material on each arm's inner edge. This, in turn, causes the dense dust clouds to collapse, creating massive stellar nurseries throughout the spiral galaxy.

That's why, as ESA puts it, "the interaction between these two galaxies has made these galactic neighbors one of the better-studied galaxy pairs in the night sky."

Back in June, the James Webb team celebrated the one-year anniversary of scientific observations for the $10 billion space telescope by sharing an image of Sun-like star formation in the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex.

NASA and ESA are aiming for approximately a decade of observations from Webb, which is located roughly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in Lagrange Point 2.

This distant vantage point allows Webb to capture mesmerizing observations of the cosmos, but it also means it is too far from Earth to be serviced like Hubble.

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