First discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1773, the Whirlpool Galaxy (also known as “M51”) is one of the most recognizable objects in the night sky. Everyone from amateur astronomers to NASA has been sharing images of the Whirlpool galaxy for decades.
But you’ve never seen an image quite like the one just taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful of its kind.
What exactly am I seeing here?
This intriguing image (pictured above) is a composite of the telescope’s NIRCam and MIRI instruments. Both devices are designed to capture the distant Universe by decoding infrared light signals emanating from distant stars and galaxies. The end result is the Whirlpool Galaxy in unprecedented detail.
The dark red regions trace the filamentary warm dust permeating the galaxy’s medium. The red areas show the reprocessed light from complex molecules forming on dust grains, while the orange and yellow colors reveal areas of ionized gas from the recently formed star clusters.
“Star feedback has dramatic effects on the galaxy’s medium, creating a complex network of bright nodes and cavernous black bubbles,” said the European Space Agencywhich helped build the telescope and launched it from its spaceport in French Guiana last year.
The term “stellar feedback” describes the outpouring of energy from stars into the environment in which they are formed. It is a crucial process in determining the rate at which stars form. Understanding stellar feedback is critical to creating accurate universal models of star formation, the agency said.
James Webb’s image is one of a series of observations designed to shed light on the interplay between stellar feedback and star formation in environments outside our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
M51 is nicknamed jacuzzi because of its swirling structure, reminiscent of water circulating in a drain. It lies about 30 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici, meaning the image we’re seeing shows what the Whirlpool galaxy looked like 30 million years ago.
The whirlpool has a little brother – the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195. The gravitational influence of M51’s smaller companion is thought to be partly responsible for the peculiar nature of the galaxy’s prominent, well-developed spiral arms.
When Hubble’s images of the Whirlpool Galaxy were released in 2011, they stunned the world. But in a prophetic twist, the team behind the images said, “Although Hubble is providing sharp insights into the internal structure of galaxies like M51, the proposed James Webb Space Telescope is expected to provide even sharper images.”
If you want to understand how the Whirlpool galaxy works and why it is so special, watch this video Michael Merrifield, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Nottingham: