Another stunning image captured by JWST. What galaxy are we talking about?

Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team
Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

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Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 29 August 2023, at 08:42 am PDT

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured a breathtaking image of the spiral galaxy M51, which stands out for its well-defined and pronounced spiral arms. Unlike other spiral galaxies that often display erratic or fragmented components, M51 is considered a paragon of galactic elegance. This composite image combines data from Webb's Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) and the pioneering Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), with Europe contributing half of the latter's data.

The image shows warm dust trails that permeate the galactic medium, traced by dark red swathes. These crimson realms are illuminated by the reprocessed light from intricate molecules that form on dust particles. In contrast, orange and yellow hues reveal domains filled with ionized gas, resulting from the recent emergence of star clusters. The interplay of stellar feedback upon the galactic medium generates a striking tableau – a labyrinthine network of luminous nodes intertwined with cavernous obsidian voids.

M51, known as the Whirlpool Galaxy or NGC 5194, is about 27 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici. This galaxy's story is intertwined with its turbulent relationship with its proximate companion, the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195. This cosmic dance duo has made M51 and its diminutive neighbor one of the most scrutinized pairs in the night sky. The gravitational interplay between M51 and its neighbor is believed to contribute to sculpting the majestic and clearly defined spiral arms adorning this galaxy's visage.

M51 has been studied extensively through NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observations to better understand the relationship between two celestial bodies. This archive provides valuable insights into the complexities of their interactions.

The JWST's observation of M51 is part of the Feedback in Emerging Extragalactic Star clusTers (FEAST) series, which aims to understand the interplay between stellar feedback and star formation in galaxies beyond our Milky Way. The stellar feedback is the energy released by stars, which plays a crucial role in creating new leads. Understanding this process is critical to developing universal models of star formation.

FEAST's main objective is to discover and study star nurseries in galaxies beyond our own. Before JWST, other observatories like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and Hubble provided glimpses into star formation. However, JWST offers a new perspective on the early stages of star formation and how gas and dust transform through radiative processes. For the first time, we can observe star clusters emerging from their embryonic shroud in galaxies beyond our local celestial neighborhood.

These observations also shed light on the timeline of heavy element pollution in newly formed stars and the purging of gas, which varies across galaxies. By understanding these processes, we gain insight into the star formation cycle and the enrichment of galaxies with heavy elements. We can also understand the formation of planets and brown dwarfs as the gas and dust remnants dissipate after being stripped from nascent stars.

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