The Webb telescope sees once-invisible structures inside spiral galaxies

(CNN) Astronomers have used the James Webb Space Telescope to peer into the heart of spiral galaxies, where young stars carve glowing trails.

The space observatory can see the universe in infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, making the telescope uniquely poised to see through the dust that obscures some galactic features when less powerful telescopes are used.

The spiral arms of galaxy NGC 7496 are filled with bubbles and shells created by young stars releasing energy.

Scientists participating in the PHANGS collaboration, or Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies, are using Webb’s infrared capabilities to study 19 spiral galaxies.

So far, the telescope has observed five of them in detail, including the galaxies M74, NGC 7496, IC 5332, NGC 1365 and NGC 1433.

The James Webb Space Telescope captured this image of NGC 1433, a barred spiral galaxy with a bright core surrounded by twin star-forming rings.

In visible light, the galaxies appeared dark and faint. But Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument was able to see how stars and star clusters can shape galactic structure. The never-before-seen details captured in the Webb images show how these intricate networks of galaxies are affected over time as stars form and evolve.

“We see directly how the energy from the formation of young stars affects the gas around them, and it’s just remarkable,” Erik Rosolowsky, a PHANGS team member and an associate professor of physics at the University of Alberta in Canada, said in a statement.

Stars releasing energy created giant bubbles of gas and dust, or luminescent voids, that gather around the spiral arms of galaxies, and sometimes these bubble-like features overlap to form shells and a structure similar to a spider’s web.

“The PHANGS team has spent years observing these galaxies at optical, radio and ultraviolent wavelengths using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array and the Very Large Telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer,” said Adam Leroy, a PHANGS team member and professor of astronomy at Ohio State University, in a statement.

A Webb Telescope image of NGC 1365 shows an intricate network of cavernous bubbles and shells as young stars release energy into the galaxy’s spiral arms.

“But the earliest stages of a star’s life cycle have remained out of sight because the process is shrouded in clouds of gas and dust.”

The observing program will continue to focus on different galaxies, conduct a census of star formation and unlock more insights into the life cycle of stars and how these stellar objects affect the galaxies they call home.

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