With a hypnotic new image released on Tuesday (Aug. 29), the James Webb Space Telescope allows us to gaze within a spiral galaxy floating some 27 million light-years away from Earth.
It’s a vibrant snapshot representing a realm named M51
(also known as NGC 5194 or the Whirlpool galaxy) that brilliantly captures the rocky relationship this galaxy has with its nearby neighbor, a dwarf galaxy
named NGC 5195. It is, in fact, partially because of this galactic interaction that M51 may have such an ornate pattern in the first place.
“The gravitational influence of M51’s smaller companion is thought to be partially responsible for the stately nature of the galaxy’s prominent and distinct spiral arms,” the European Space Agency said in a statement about the visual.
And on the note of those stunning spiral arms, one intriguing fact about M51 is its winding structure dubs it a “grand-design” galaxy rather than just a standard spiral galaxy.
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While a typical spiral galaxy exhibits vortexed arms like M51 as well, grand-design spirals constitute about one-tenth of all spiral galaxies and possess very strongly defined arms that stem from a clear core region. Naturally, this makes them quite beautiful to look at from our vantage point on Earth. (It’s technically up for debate whether our Milky Way is a grand-design galaxy as well).
ESA even calls M51 one of the most “photogenic galaxies in amateur and professional astronomy.” As you can see, it’s been a cosmic inspiration for as far back as 2001.
So, what am I looking at here?
To image M51, the JWST tapped into two of its powerful infrared instruments: The Mid-Infrared Instrument and the Near-Infrared Camera. This, as you may expect, provided two separate perspectives on the galactic subject (though there is a composite image that combines the two).
Like their names suggest, both devices are built to capture the distant…