A close look at Stephan’s Quintet from the Webb space telescope.

As the countdown clock reached zero and the scientific community held their collective breaths on the early morning of December 25th, 2021, the European Space Agency in collaboration with NASA, launched a massive Ariane 5 rocket from the tropical rainforests of Kourou, French Guiana. Riding atop that rocket, along with the hopes, dreams, blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of engineers, scientists, and astronomers worldwide was the most lavishly expensive scientific instrument ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope, known simply as JWST or Webb. After a successful launch and an orbital insertion, the telescope was rocketed out to a far-away point in space known as the second Lagrange point (L2) almost a million miles from Earth where the telescope is gravitationally tethered to the Earth as it orbits the sun. Once there, Webb entered into a halo orbit around L2 and scientists began calibrating its finicky components, unfurling its gigantic sunshade, and preparing the multitude of scientific instruments for their new life searching the farthest reaches of the universe. The James Webb Space Telescope is like no other, a long-awaited replacement for the aging Hubble telescope which is entering the twilight years of its useful life. Unlike its predecessor whose primary mission was to view the universe in the ultraviolet and visible light spectrum, Webb will primarily scan the cosmos gathering light in the far-infrared spectrum. This will allow it to view objects that are much further away than those that Hubble is able to see. The universe is expanding, and the earliest galaxies to form after the Big Bang are all moving away from us at tremendous speeds. This causes their light to be stretched and shifted to the infrared, an effect known as “Doppler red-shift.” The expansion of space contributes to this phenomenon, and with more light-collecting area than its predecessors, along with several infrared-optimized instruments, Webb will be able to observe objects farther away and further back in time than ever before. The light from these galaxies, many of which were among the first to ever form more than thirteen billion years ago has been traveling toward us for that entire time, and Webb will be the first telescope humanity has built that is capable of imaging that early light.

Now, the long wait is over. Yesterday, NASA publicly released the first few of these much anticipated images.

The images they released are astounding and groundbreaking in their clarity and resolution. When you first stare at these images, they’re objectively amazing, but when you spend a little bit of time actually exploring the full depth of what’s incorporated in them, that amazement turns to utter astonishment. I’ll take a look at just one of these images in this article, and then an in-depth look at a second image in an upcoming one.

The first image I want to explore is a composite image from the near-infrared camera (NIRcam) and mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) incorporated into James Webb. The result of this composite is a beautiful view of one of the most destructive and chaotic areas of the nearby universe, a group of five galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet.

Stephan’s quintet was discovered in 1877, but it wasn’t until the Hubble Telescope imaged it in 2009 that astronomers began to see some of the chaotic turbulence that was happening as the galaxy on the bottom right of the two center twins (NGC 7318b) smashes into the others at millions of miles per hour. The galaxy that’s on the left of the group is NGC 7320, and although it seems to belong in the group of five, it’s actually a foreground galaxy, completely unrelated to the other four. That galaxy is much closer to us, only 40 million light years away, compared to the other four which are about 280 million light years distant, in the direction of Pegasus. I’ll get back to NGC 7320 in a moment, but I want to focus on the main architect of anarchy in this group of four, the disruptive NGC 7318b. If we zoom in a little bit, we get a good look at one of the most interesting features of the high-speed collision that’s happening. The gas shock-wave that is spreading outward from the colliding galaxies.

As NGC 7318b collides with the other three, its collective gravity shoves all of the hydrogen gas clouds that fill the vast vacuum of all four galaxies into a compressed arc that spreads outward at the top of the photo. This arc is a shockwave of hydrogen gas and dust, and it’s huge.

The arc of the shockwave is longer than the entire diameter of the Milky Way galaxy, more than 100,000 light years across. Not only is this shockwave pushing the gas outward in this gargantuan, speeding arc, it’s compressing it, heating it up to a temperature of millions of degrees in some areas, and causing the compressed gas to form its own gravity and start to collapse into new stars. If we zoom in further, we can see an incredible array of thousands of young, hot, bright stars that have all formed in the few million years that has passed since the collision began. Here’s a zoomed look at one small area—a few thousand light years across—where hundreds if not thousands of brand-new stars have been born.

One thing to note is that these dense star clusters only appear yellowish-orange because this is an infrared image. In a true-color visual light photo, the majority of these star would be blue in color, denoting their young age and high temperature, however, the dense gas clouds block a lot of visual light, which makes these stars only truly visible in the infrared. We can see a bit through the hydrogen haze by looking at only the near-infrared image from the NIRcam. While still hazy from the gas, you can clearly see dense blue stars, along with a scattering of older red giants and young but relatively cool red dwarves.

At the same zoom, and moving up to NGC 7319 above the two entwined galaxies, we can easily see the gravitational effect of the shock-turbulence that’s affecting the entire group of four galaxies in the expanding arms of hydrogen gas and dust that have blown outward from the main body of the galaxy. Vast fields of gas thrusting outward in massive fingers that are tens of thousands of light years in size. From a planet inside this galaxy, these hydrogen clouds would light up the sky in dazzling arrays of color that would be absolutely magnificent. Barring, of course, the shockwave that’s causing the incredible turbulence ripping apart your planet, something that would certainly hinder your enjoyment of the spectacle.

Before I leave Stephan’s Quintet, I want to take a look at the galaxy that doesn’t actually belong in the group, NGC 7320. Because this galaxy, which is considered a dwarf galaxy due to its size of only about 30,000 light years across, less than one-third the size of the Milky Way, is so much closer than the other four, this image from Webb shows very clearly the individual stars that make up it’s outer rings. Hubble was able to take images of this galaxy that showed thousands of individual stars and small star clusters but Webb takes this to another level altogether. Take a look at this shot I captured by zooming in on one small part of the galaxy in the high-resolution Webb image.

Although hazy and slightly obscured by gas, hundreds of thousands of individual stars are clearly discernable. I’m just constantly amazed at the number of stars in even a galaxy considered to be a “dwarf.” The Milky Way consists of an estimated 200-400 billion stars, and approximately half of them are estimated to contain planets. We have eight planets around our star, so there may be as many as a trillion planets just in our galaxy. Expand that out to the estimated two trillion other galaxies in the observable universe, and it starts to seem like we’re absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of such an unimaginable vast arena of potential life.

Now, for one last thing. It’s obvious that in a picture like this, 99.99% of people who look at it are going to look at the main focal point, the five galaxies of the quintet. I like to be in the .01% though, and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time zooming in around the other areas of this photo, where hundreds, if not thousands of additional galaxies can be seen. So, since we’re involved in a stupefying thought-bubble that can lead to an existential crisis. Let’s go back out to the full view. What about this galaxy over here?

Let’s zoom in on that beauty.

This shows a very nice, uniform, fully-facing, barred spiral galaxy. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that we’ve given it no name or designation, I doubt it’s been examined in any sort of definition, and I doubt anybody in the world has spent more than a few seconds looking at it. Besides me, of course. I want to know what’s happening in this galaxy. How many hundreds of billions of stars are there? How old are they? How many planets are there? How far away is this, and how many life-forms have risen from the galactic soup of this obscure, uncharted, cast aside by the scientific community, lost in the vast quagmire of a universal field that contains trillions like it, galaxy?

Okay, one last thing on this incredible picture. How many galaxies are actually imaged in this photo of what most people think to be just five distinct galaxies? Take a look at just a random area that I decided to zoom in on, specifically from the lower-left of the main photo.

How many galaxies are present in just this small portion of a very large photo? Every single point of light in this small snip from the main photo, save for what I think are probably eight stars, identifiable by the six-point spikes radiating from them–something unique to JWST photos that I may get into in the next blog–every single speckle of color you can see is an entire galaxy, consisting of hundreds of millions, if not billions, if not a trillion or more stars, most so far away that they’re almost invisible even in this photo. The great thing though, is that Webb is capable of imaging all of them! It’s just a matter of dedicating the time to point the instruments in that desired direction and let them sit. Oh, one last thing. There’s a small, red speck just to the left and slightly above center of this last photo. I think that bears some exploration. Now, Stephan’s Quintet is obviously not the only group of colliding galaxies in the universe, and during my exploration of this photo, I found another one. Let’s zoom in a bit more on that speck.

This shows what seems to be six distant galaxies in a horizontal line, and at least the middle two are clearly colliding. These galaxies are so far away, and so small, that they can’t even be seen in the full un-zoomed image released by NASA, which gives you a sense of just how many galaxies there are in the background of this photo, and just how great the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope is. You can see the shockwave from the collision spreading out to the left of the two central galaxies, while to the right and left of it are two additional galaxies that may or may not actually be involved. All of these galaxies are red-shifted, even beyond the apparent red color of the IR cameras that took the shot, meaning that they are moving away from us at tremendous speeds, and that the light from them is reaching us after billions of years of travel. Since this is what they looked like when the light first left them billions of years ago, what must they look like now? Do they even exist anymore? How many civilizations may have risen and fallen in that distant space during the billions of years these galaxies existed while the Milky Way was still in its infancy, while our sun was nothing more than a cool, swirling cloud of hydrogen and helium? We’ll never know the answers to these questions, and that leaves me in a saddened state of existential melancholy.

I’ll ponder a little more of that in the next blog when I examine the James Webb deep-field, the most fascinating photo of yesterday’s release. In the meantime, if you want to download the full resolution image and do your own exploring, you can find it here: https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2022/034/01G7DA5ADA2WDSK1JJPQ0PTG4A Please let me know if you find anything of interest!

*All photos courtesy of NASA and used in the public domain, zooms and screenshots are my known from the public domain photos.

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