The James Webb Space Telescope Zeroes In On One Of The Weirdest Galaxies In The Universe

The James Webb Space Telescope keeps cranking out images of some of the most unusual features of deep space.

This week, NASA and its partners released new images of what it called a “rare” feature: the rings and spokes of the Cartwheel Galaxy, some 500 million light years from Earth in the Sculptor constellation.

“Its appearance, much like that of the wheel of a wagon, is the result of an intense event ― a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy not visible in this image,” NASA said in a news release. “Collisions of galactic proportions cause a cascade of different, smaller events between the galaxies involved; the Cartwheel is no exception.”

The space agencies released several images, including this composite from its the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI):

Cartwheel Galaxy
Cartwheel Galaxy

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

“The Cartwheel is composed of two rings, a bright inner ring and a colorful outer ring,” the Space Telescope Science Institute, which handles science and mission operation for the telescope, said in a news release. “Both rings expand outward from the center of the collision like shockwaves.”

These ring galaxies, as they are known, are much less common than spiral galaxies, such as our own Milky Way.

NASA said the bright core contains hot dust and “gigantic young star clusters,” while the outer ring ― which has been expanding for 440 millions years ― features new stars forming and supernovas.

“The form that the Cartwheel Galaxy will eventually take, given these two competing forces, is still a mystery,” the Space Telescope Science Institute said. “However, this snapshot provides perspective on what happened to the galaxy in the past and what it will do in the future.”

Here’s the image just from the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI):

This image from Webb's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows a group of galaxies, including a large distorted ring-shaped galaxy known as the Cartwheel. The Cartwheel Galaxy, located 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation, is composed of a bright inner ring and an active outer ring. While this outer ring has a lot of star formation, the dusty area in between reveals many stars and star clusters.The mid-infrared light captured by MIRI reveals fine details about these dusty regions and young stars within the Cartwheel Galaxy, which are rich in hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds, as well as silicate dust, like much of the dust on Earth.Young stars, many of which are present in the bottom right of the outer ring, energize surrounding hydrocarbon dust, causing it to glow orange. On the other hand, the clearly defined dust between the core and the outer ring, which forms the spokes that inspire the galaxy's name, is mostly silicate dust. The smaller spiral galaxy to the upper left of Cartwheel displays much of the same behavior, showing a large amount of star formation.
This image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows a group of galaxies, including a large distorted ring-shaped galaxy known as the Cartwheel. The Cartwheel Galaxy, located 500 million light-years away in the Sculptor constellation, is composed of a bright inner ring and an active outer ring. While this outer ring has a lot of star formation, the dusty area in between reveals many stars and star clusters.The mid-infrared light captured by MIRI reveals fine details about these dusty regions and young stars within the Cartwheel Galaxy, which are rich in hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds, as well as silicate dust, like much of the dust on Earth.Young stars, many of which are present in the bottom right of the outer ring, energize surrounding hydrocarbon dust, causing it to glow orange. On the other hand, the clearly defined dust between the core and the outer ring, which forms the spokes that inspire the galaxy’s name, is mostly silicate dust. The smaller spiral galaxy to the upper left of Cartwheel displays much of the same behavior, showing a large amount of star formation.

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

“Young stars, many of which are present in the bottom right of the outer ring, energize surrounding hydrocarbon dust, causing it to glow orange,” the Space Telescope Science Institute said in a news release. “On the other hand, the clearly defined dust between the core and the outer ring, which forms the ‘spokes’ that inspire the galaxy’s name, is mostly silicate dust.”

For comparison, here’s a Hubble image of the galaxy captured in 1996:

Located 500 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor, the galaxy looks like a wagon wheel. The galaxy's nucleus is the bright object in the center of the image; the spoke-like structures are wisps of material connecting the nucleus to the outer ring of young stars. The galaxy's unusual configuration was created by a nearly head-on collision with a smaller galaxy about 200 million years ago.
Located 500 million light-years away in the constellation Sculptor, the galaxy looks like a wagon wheel. The galaxy’s nucleus is the bright object in the center of the image; the spoke-like structures are wisps of material connecting the nucleus to the outer ring of young stars. The galaxy’s unusual configuration was created by a nearly head-on collision with a smaller galaxy about 200 million years ago.

via Curt Struck and Philip Appleton (Iowa State University), Kirk Borne (Hughes STX Corporation), and Ray Lucas ( Space Telescope Science Institute), and NASA/ESA

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