See Dazzling New Images of 19 Spiral Galaxies Captured by the James Webb Space Telescope

These detailed infrared views, which contain millions of stars, will help astronomers better understand star formation and the evolution of spiral galaxies

In this image of a galaxy, orange wisps spiral out from a small blue center
Spiral galaxy NGC 628, located 32 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces, as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope in near- and mid-infrared light. The red and orange spirals represent gas, while the small blue dots represent stars. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team

In new images from the James Webb Space Telescope, 19 nearby spiral galaxies sparkle in unprecedented detail.

While astronomers have examined neighboring galaxies for decades, the new views from Webb show their stars, gas and dust in the highest resolution ever captured in near- and mid-infrared images, according to a statement from the telescope team. The images will help scientists to better understand star formation and the evolution of spiral galaxies.

“The images are not only aesthetically stunning, they also tell a story about the cycle of star formation and feedback, which is the energy and momentum released by young stars into the space between stars,” Janice Lee, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, tells Reuters’ Will Dunham.

“I feel like our team lives in a constant state of being overwhelmed—in a positive way—by the amount of detail in these images,” Thomas Williams, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., says in the statement.

A gallery of the new images featuring all 19 spiral galaxies can be found here.

Images of 19 different spiral galaxies in 19 different boxes with thin black borders
The 19 spiral galaxies newly imaged by the Webb Telescope. Older stars are clustered near the centers of the galaxies, while younger stars are farther out along the spiral arms. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team

Spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way, are named for their shape. In their distinctive form, winding arms radiate from a rotating disc in the middle. Since galaxies grow outward from their centers, older stars sit at the core, while younger stars populate the more peripheral arms.

The newly imaged spiral galaxies are between 20 million and 80 million light-years away, according to Inverse’s Doris Elín Urrutia.

These dazzling snapshots were taken as part of the PHANGS survey (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS), a long-standing project that has studied nearby galaxies in ultraviolet, visible and radio light using a range of instruments. It has taken advantage of the Hubble Telescope, for example, which was optimized for observations in ultraviolet and visible light.

On the other hand, Webb, which launched to space in 2021, detects near- and mid-infrared light of longer wavelengths than the visible spectrum.

“Using Hubble, we would see the starlight from galaxies, but some of the light was blocked by the dust of galaxies,” Erik Rosolowsky, an astronomer at the University of Alberta in Canada, tells Reuters. “This limitation made it hard to understand parts of how a galaxy operates as a system. With Webb’s view in the infrared, we can see through this dust to see stars behind and within the enshrouding dust.”

a spiral galaxy with a glowing yellow core
Webb's image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300, showing gas and dust in a bright orange and red, with blue stars across the galactic arms. The galaxy is 69 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team
a spiral galaxy with deep red arms and dark cavities among the gas winding outward
Spiral galaxy NGC 4254, as seen face-on by the James Webb Space Telescope. It's located 50 million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team

In the new images, the blue dots of light are stars captured by Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam). These beacons are spread through the spiral arms and densely packed in the galaxies’ centers. Across the gallery of 19 galaxies, Webb spotted millions of stars.

The mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) detects stars that are still forming and picks up on the dust around and between stars. Holes in the gas and dust mark where stars may have exploded.

Billowing red and orange wisps represent gas in the spiral arms. “These structures tend to follow the same pattern in certain parts of the galaxies,” Rosolowsky says in the statement. “We think of these like waves, and their spacing tells us a lot about how a galaxy distributes its gas and dust.”

While the galactic cores that appear to glow blue are likely full of older stars, those that shine in pink and red could be signaling the presence of a supermassive black hole, or extremely bright star clusters, per the statement.

a spiral galaxy in red with some bright diffraction spikes coming from its glowing white center
Spiral galaxy NGC 7496 is a special case in Webb's new images—bright red diffraction spikes from its core appear to be a "calling card" of a supermassive black hole. The galaxy is 24 million light-years away in the constellation Grus. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Janice Lee (STScI), Thomas Williams (Oxford), PHANGS Team

The sheer number of stars that Webb has observed can help researchers to better understand their growth.

“Stars can live for billions or trillions of years,” Adam Leroy, an astronomer at the Ohio State University, says in the statement. “By precisely cataloging all types of stars, we can build a more reliable, holistic view of their life cycles.”

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