The sprawling and hypnotically symmetric “whirlpool galaxy” Messier 51 is so large and so bright that even an amateur astronomer can identify the galaxy’s iconic spirals as a pair, even at their great distance, somewhere between 23 and 31 million light-years from Earth, alone a pair of binoculars.
But no one has ever seen it like this.
The European Space Agency (ESA) on Tuesday released stunning, brand new images of Messier 51 (M51) taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched on Christmas Day 2021 and is now operated jointly by NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Telescope Space Agency (CSA).
Webb acquired these latest images of the Vortex Galaxy using his two powerful infrared instruments: key tools essential to his astronomy and astrophysics research mission, helping the telescope peer deeper through intergalactic dust and gas nebulae for a clearer picture of the cosmos .
In the following images you can see the distinct, ripple-like difference in detail that Webb can achieve by capturing more infrared wavelengths: the first on the left, captured by his near-infrared (NIRCam) camera, and the second on the right, captured by his deeper mid-infrared (MIRI).
The European Space Agency on Tuesday released stunning brand new images of the sprawling ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’ Messier 51 (M51) taken with the James Webb Space Telescope. You can see the distinct, ripple-like difference in detail that Webb can achieve by capturing additional infrared wavelengths in these images: the first (left) captured by his near-infrared (NIRCam) camera, and the second (right) captured by his deeper mid-infrared instrument (MIRI). The images are the most detailed captured by M51 to date
According to ESA, the dark red features in the NIRcam image are warm, threadlike stamens that would be massive in width and length up close. In the more orange and light yellow areas of the Galactic picture, gases have been heated and ionized by recently formed star clusters nearby.
Webb’s infrared capabilities make him particularly well placed to identify and study star formation in these cloudy gas regions of distant galaxies – and the new M51 images are a part of a project led by researchers at Stockholm University to do just that.
The Feedback in Emerging extraAgalactic Star Clusters, or FEAST for short, was given a 12-month “exclusive access period” to use the James Webb telescope to collect data to discover and better understand “stellar nurseries” beyond the Milky Way.
As its name suggests, FEAST hopes to delve deeper into the dusty, gaseous clouds of these stellar nurseries to gather new data on how stars are shaped by gravitational pull and other forces within their cosmic vortex.
The latest and sharpest image of the galaxy M51 was taken in January 2005 by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.
The latest and sharpest image of the M51 galaxy (left) was taken in January 2005 by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. When compared to James Webb’s NIRCam, it is clear that Webb’s infrared images help penetrate the eerie nebula of cosmic dust and gas swirling around M51’s spirals, as shown in the older Hubble images
A comparison with James Webb’s NIRCam reveals just how much Webb’s infrared imaging hardware helps penetrate the eerie nebula of cosmic dust and gas that swirls around M51’s spirals in the older Hubble images.
The distant M51 galaxy’s iconic vortex-like spirals were first seen in 1845 when the astronomer and Third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, observed and charted the galaxy with a then-state-of-the-art reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland
Although the new images show M51’s vortex galaxy in more detail than ever before, the majestic spiral galaxy has fascinated astronomers for centuries, ever since it was first discovered and named French astronomer Charles Messier in 1773.
Messier published cataloged 110 nebulae and star clusters, all of which now bear his name as numbered Messier objects.
But the distant galaxy’s iconic, vortex-like spirals would not be seen for another 72 years, when an astronomer and The third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, first observed and drew the galaxy with what was then a state-of-the-art reflecting telescope at Birr Castle, Ireland.
Today, the galaxy Messier 51 is classified as a “large type” spiral galaxy.
Only one in ten spiral galaxies has strong, well-defined spirals extending from its central region and is considered a “grand design” galaxy.
And in the case of M51, the reason for its rare shape is the gravitational pull of its interfering neighbor, the dwarf galaxy NGC 5195, seen in the Parsons plot above, tugging at the spirals on M51’s upper right.
“The gravitational influence of M51’s smaller companion is thought to be partly responsible for the stately nature of the galaxy’s prominent and pronounced spiral arms,” ESA explained in its release of the new images.
Over time, Webb’s imaging could show star-forming centers forming another type of cosmic dwarf, called small “brown dwarfs.”
“By studying these processes,” said ESA, “we will better understand how the star formation cycle and metal enrichment in galaxies are regulated and what the timescales for planetary and brown dwarf formation are.”