For the first time, high-resolution images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope are offering powerful insights into the complex dust patterns of nearby star-forming galaxies.
One of the most fundamental building blocks in the universe, cosmic dust is a vital ingredient to the growth of a galaxy. When scattered, these tiny grains help plant the seeds for the creation of stars and planets alike — yet only recently, through rapid leaps in technology, have astronomers begun to shine a brighter light on their intricate physics.
Led by scientists at The Ohio State University, an international team of astronomers used data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument to create stunning visuals of 19 spiral galaxies located relatively close to the Milky Way. By examining infrared light — wavelengths invisible to the naked eye — these incredibly precise images reveal how dust fertilizes the universe after being heated by both massive young stars and surrounding interstellar space radiation.
“Using this brand new data, we’re able to see the distribution of dust emission and determine what the interstellar material in the disks of these galaxies looks like,” said Debosmita Pathak, lead author of the study and a graduate student in astronomy at Ohio State.
The images were taken from the PHANGS-JWST Cycle 1 Treasury, a survey collaboration that uses high-powered telescopes to better understand galactic evolution. In this study, they used data collected from the first year of Webb observations to create probability distribution function (PDF) measurements that chart the galaxies’ dust emissions in the mid-infrared.
They found that the disks of galaxies in the mid-infrared show both a normal distribution of gas (represented in the study’s PDF charts as a high peak) and a high distribution (appearing as a gentle slope). While the regions where star-forming nurseries reside look noticeably different, the shape and width of the distribution of…