See the Eerily Beautiful Image James Webb Captured of a Spiral Galaxy
The spooky-looking structure, known as IC 5332, is about 29 million light-years away from Earth
When astronomers observe the galaxy known as IC 5332, they typically see a wispy, dusty spiral-shaped form, with details that are a bit hard to make out. But when the powerful James Webb Space Telescope turned its high-tech devices toward the galaxy, it offered scientists an “unprecedented” look at its intricate structure, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed Tuesday.
The highly detailed image of IC 5332, located more than 29 million light-years away from Earth, is just the latest in a series of impressive snapshots taken by Webb, the $10 billion telescope that launched last December. The project is a collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
IC 5332 has a diameter of roughly 66,000 light-years, making it about two-thirds the size of the Milky Way galaxy. It faces Earth head-on, which allows astronomers to get a good look at the galaxy’s spiral arms.
To home in on IC 5332, Webb used its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which can make out wavelengths that range from 5 to 28 microns—too long for human eyes to see. This highly specialized instrument has some unique requirements for doing its job—most notably, it needs to be kept extremely cold. It must operate at -266 degrees Celsius (-447 degrees Fahrenheit), which is just 7 degrees Celsius warmer than absolute zero.
To keep MIRI at the right temperature, engineers outfitted the instrument with a dedicated active cooling system. MIRI needs to be super-cooled to reduce "noise" from other infrared radiation that might make its images grainy. The rest of Webb is also kept cold, but not nearly as chilly as MIRI, which is 33 degrees Celsius cooler than all other parts of the observatory.
“The extra effort made to ensure that MIRI’s detectors had the freezing environment necessary to operate properly is evident in this stunning image,” per the ESA.
The Hubble Space Telescope snapped an image of the same galaxy using its Wide Field Camera 3. When looking at the two telescopes’ photos side by side, it’s easy to spot the differences.
Hubble’s ultraviolet and visible-light image shows the different colors of younger and older stars, as well as dark areas of cosmic dust. Webb, meanwhile, was able to peer through the dust and see the patterns of gas dispersed throughout the galaxy, which reveal a “continual tangle of structures that echo the spiral arms’ shape,” per ESA.
As NASA pointed out on Twitter, Webb’s image is “dark and moody” and shows the “bones” of the galaxy.
“Space, but make it goth!” the agency tweeted.
The two images also show different stars, since some stars appear brighter when viewed at distinct wavelengths—ultraviolet, visible light and infrared.
“The images complement one another in a remarkable way, each telling us more about IC 5332’s structure and composition,” per the ESA.