Several hundred million years ago, astronomers believe the Cartwheel Galaxy collided with another smaller galaxy. That nearly head-on crash forever changed the then-spiral-shaped galaxy, giving it a new shape and structure resembling a wagon wheel.
Scientists have long been fascinated by the Cartwheel Galaxy, located in the Sculptor constellation about 500 million light-years away. But space dust has made it difficult for optical telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope to capture detailed images of the celestial body.
Now, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, researchers have a much clearer view. The telescope captured a striking photo of the rare ring galaxy and, in the process, unveiled new details about its central black hole and star formation.
The composite photo, which NASA and the European Space Agency shared this week, shows the large, pinkish-red Cartwheel Galaxy and two smaller galaxies set against an inky-black backdrop brimming with smaller galaxies and stars.
The Cartwheel is called a ring galaxy because it has two rings—a colorful outer ring and a bright inner ring—that expand out from its center “like ripples in a pond after a stone is tossed into it,” per NASA. Ring galaxies like the Cartwheel are less common than spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.
The outer ring has been expanding for about 440 million years and, as it barrels outward, it smashes into the surrounding gas, which triggers star formation, per NASA. The inner core is made up of hot dust and gigantic young star clusters.
Webb was able to capture the dramatic image because it contains a near-infrared camera (NIRCam). The camera operates over the near-infrared wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 microns, uncovering details beyond what’s observable in visible light. The camera can also see through cosmic dust, which tends to hide young stars.
The telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), which operates over a wavelength range of 5 to 28 microns, also revealed new insights about the Cartwheel Galaxy. That device helped capture the galaxy’s spokes, which are made up of hydrocarbons, silicate dust and other chemical compounds. Though earlier Hubble images showed the spokes, too, they’re more distinct and prominent in the Webb image, per NASA.
Like all photos, the Webb image is just a snapshot in time of the Cartwheel Galaxy. According to NASA, the celestial body will continue to evolve and transform into the future.
The James Webb Space Telescope, meanwhile, is also just getting started. Launched in December 2021, the high-tech device is now starting to send back jaw-dropping images of colorful nebulae, galaxies, the distant universe and other previously unseen views.
“These images … show us how Webb will help to uncover the answers to questions we don’t even yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our universe and humanity’s place within it,” said Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, in a statement last month.