The sprawling and hypnotically symmetrical ‘whirlpool galaxy’ Messier 51 is so large and so bright that even at its vast distance away, somewhere between 23 and 31 million light-years from Earth, even an amateur astronomer can identify the galaxy’s iconic spirals with a pair of binoculars alone.
But no one has ever seen it quite like this.
The European Space Agency (ESA) posted stunning, brand new images of Messier 51 (M51) Tuesday, taken with the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched into space on Christmas Day of 2021 and is now jointly operated by NASA, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Webb captured these latest images of the whirlpool galaxy with the help of its two powerful infrared instruments: key tools essential to its astronomy and astrophysics research mandate, that helps the telescope peer deeper through intergalactic dust and gaseous nebulae for a clearer picture of the cosmos.
You can see the vivid, rippling difference in detail that Webb can achieve by capturing more infrared wavelengths in the images below: the first, at left, taken by its Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) and the second, right, taken by its deeper Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI).
The European Space Agency posted stunning, brand new images of the sprawling ‘whirlpool galaxy’ Messier 51 (M51) Tuesday, taken with the James Webb Space Telescope. You can see the vivid, rippling difference in detail that Webb can achieve by capturing more infrared wavelengths in these images: the first (left), taken by its Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) and the second (right), taken by its deeper Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). The images are the most detailed of M51 yet taken
The dark red features in the NIRcam image, according to a statement from the ESA, are warm thread-like dust filaments, which would be massive in their width and length up close. The more orange and light yellow regions of the galactic image are where gases have become heated and ionized by recently formed clusters of stars nearby.
Webb’s infrared capabilities make it particularly capable of identifying and studying the formations of stars in these cloudy gaseous regions of distant galaxies — and the new M51 images came a project led by researchers at Stockholm University to do just that.
The Feedback in Emerging extrAgalactic Star clusTers, or FEAST, obtained a 12-month ‘exclusive access period’ to collect data using the James Webb telescope in an effort to to discover and further understand ‘stellar nurseries’ beyond beyond the Milky Way.
As its name implies, FEAST hopes to feast its eyes deeper into the dusty, gaseous clouds of these stellar nurseries to collect fresh data on how stars are forged by the gravitational pull and other forces within their cosmic swirl.
The last, sharpest-ever picture of the M51 galaxy was taken in January 2005 by the Advanced Camera for Surveys onboard the Hubble Space Telescope.
The last, sharpest-ever picture of the M51 galaxy (left) was taken in January 2005 by the Advanced Camera for Surveys onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. When compared to James Webb’s NIRCam, it is clear that Webb’s infrared imaging helps penetrate the eerie fog of cosmic dust and gas that swirls around M51’s spirals as depicted in the older Hubble images
When compared to James Webb’s NIRCam, it’s clear just how much Webb’s infrared imaging hardware helps to penetrate the eerie fog of cosmic dust and gas that can be seen swirling around M51’s spirals as depicted in the older Hubble images.
The distant M51 galaxy’s iconic whirlpool-like spirals were first seen in 1845, when astronomer and Third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, observed and drew the galaxy using a then-state-of-the-art reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland
Although the new images show M51’s whirlpool galaxy in richer detail than ever before, the majestic spiral has captivated astronomers for centuries, ever since it was first discovered and named by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1773.
Messier published catalogued 110 nebulae and star clusters, which now all bear his name as numbered Messier objects.
But the distant galaxy’s iconic whirlpool-like spirals were not seen for another 72 years, when an astronomer and Third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, first observed and drew the galaxy using a then-state-of-the-art reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland.
Today, the Messier 51 galaxy is what’s classified as a ‘grand design’ spiral galaxy.
Only one out of every ten spiral galaxies has the strong, well-defined spirals pulling out from its central region to qualify as a ‘grand design’ galaxy.
And in the case of M51, the reason it has its rare shape is the gravitational pull of its bothersome neighbor, the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195, which can be seen in the Parsons’ drawing above, pulling at the spirals on M51’s upper-right side.
‘The gravitational influence of M51’s smaller companion,’ as ESA explained in their release of the new images, ‘is thought to be partially responsible for the stately nature of the galaxy’s prominent and distinct spiral arms.’
In time, Webb’s imaging might reveal how stellar nurseries birth a different kind of cosmic dwarf, small ‘brown dwarf’ stars.
‘By studying these processes,’ ESA said, ‘we will better understand how the star formation cycle and metal enrichment are regulated within galaxies as well as what are the time scales for planets and brown dwarfs to form.’
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