The new image from the James Webb Space Telescope looks more like a gruesome psychedelic swirl from a Marvel movie than the spiral galaxy shape familiar from visual telescopes. It shows the dusty skeleton of the distant galaxy NGC 628.
“This is a galaxy that is probably very similar to what we think our own Milky Way looks like,” said Gabriel Brammer, an astronomer at the Cosmic Dawn Center at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, who shared the image on Twitter Monday, told The independent in an interview. “You can see all these knots of individual stars forming, individual supernovae have gone off and really study that in detail.”
The spiral arms of NGC 628 have been imaged before, but the visible light images of the galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope are nothing like the purple spiral structure seen in Webb’s mid-infrared image.
“You look at this galaxy with Hubble or with telescopes on the ground,” said Dr. Brammer, “you see blue stars, you see red stars, you see spiral arms, you see dust lanes.”
Those dust lanes, he said, reddish-brown filaments in the spiral arms tend to block stars in the visible images taken by Webb and other telescopes.
“In the mid-infrared you actually see the reverse of that, where it no longer absorbs dust; we’re actually directly observing that dust itself that’s glowing right now, because the dust itself is emitting,” said Dr. Brammer. “We’re actually seeing an image of the gas and dust in this galaxy, rather than the stars.”
Webb captured the image of NGC 628 on July 17 and sent it back to Earth, where it was recorded in the Barbara Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), where the data is available to everyone, including the public. dr. Brammer actually studies very distant galaxies in his own work rather than relatively nearby galaxies like NGC 628, but when he saw the raw image in the data Monday morning, he knew he wanted to process and share the color image.
“It was really the first thing that jumped out,” he said. “It really blew me away as soon as I opened it on my screen.”
While NASA made a big show of unveiling the first five full-color Webb images on July 12, the telescope has barely stood still since and, according to Dr. Brammer, is continuously taking pictures and posting them to the MAST archive. For astronomers who have waited more than 20 years for an opportunity to see what Webb can do, these are extremely exciting times.”
“We’ve been waiting for Webb for decades in some cases and all of us haven’t slept much in the past week and looked at as many different Webb images as we can,” said Dr. Brammer. “It’s just all really spectacular.”