What Is This ‘Cosmic Question Mark’ Captured by the James Webb Space Telescope?

Astronomers say the distinct, punctuation-like shape could be a result of galaxies merging

Question Mark in Space
The "cosmic question mark" in an image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale (STScI) via the European Space Agency

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a spectacular new image of a pair of actively forming stars about 1,470 light-years away. But beneath the breathtaking phenomenon, some viewers noticed a peculiar shape among the backdrop of celestial objects: a glowing question mark. The image quickly went viral on social media, with jokes about its origin ranging from aliens to a glitch in the Matrix.

So, what exactly is this strange cosmic figure? 

“The very first thing you can rule out is that it’s a star in the Milky Way,” Matt Caplan, a physicist at Illinois State University, tells CNN’s Kristen Rogers and Ashley Strickland. “Stars always have these really big spikes, and that’s because stars are point-like. It’s called diffraction, from basically the edges of the mirrors and the struts that support the sort of camera in the middle.”

The object’s color indicates it is either very distant—billions of light-years away—or much closer and obscured by dust. The question mark also appears to be made up of at least two distinct bodies: the curve and the dot, David Helfand, an astronomer at Columbia University, tells National Geographic’s Allie Yang. 

The bodies may be completely unrelated and just happened to line up at exactly the right angle, Helfand tells the publication. But another possible explanation is that the shining question mark represents two galaxies merging. The hooked portion of the shape may be what’s called a tidal tail—a thin, elongated stream of stars and gases that occurs as galaxies interact. 

“The upper part of the question mark looks like a distorted spiral galaxy, maybe merging with a second galaxy,” Kai Noeske, communication program officer with the European Space Agency, tells NPR’s Rachel Treisman.

two young stars merging in a cloud of blue and red with several stars and galaxies surrounding them
A pair of actively forming young stars known as Herbig-Haro 46/47. With close examination, the "question mark" can be seen near the bottom of the image, just right of center. NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Such shapes in space have been captured before. In 2008, the Hubble Space Telescope snapped a picture of two merging galaxies that had a vaguely question-mark-shaped appearance. Another image taken by Hubble in 2009 shows an optical illusion made up of at least four galaxies that look to form a similar shape but are mostly unconnected.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s image, which was released in July, focused on the frequently observed stars known as Herbig-Haro 46/47. According to NASA, Herbig-Haro 46/47 is an important research focus because it is relatively young—only about a few thousand years old—and star systems take millions of years to fully form. Learning more about how these stars gather mass over time could reveal more about how our own sun came to be, per the agency.

While we may never know the exact cause behind the cosmic question mark, the James Webb image quite literally shows us how many more scientific questions we have yet to answer about space.

“I think we all enjoy finding familiar shapes in the sky; that creates a deep connection between our human experience and language in this case (a question mark!) and the beauty of the universe surrounding us,” Macarena Garcia Marin, Webb project scientist with the Space Telescope Science Institute, tells NPR in an email. “I think this exemplifies the human need for exploration and wonder, and to me it brings the question of how many other interesting objects are out there waiting to be explored with Webb.”

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