Hubble and Webb Space telescopes combine to give us this dazzling, colorful view of spiral galaxy NGC 1566: a swirling scaffold of dense, dusty filaments, bright star clusters, and bright bursts of star formation, with a supermassive black hole at its smoldering core.
NGC 1566 is a rare intergalactic bird: gas and dust are still falling into the supermassive black hole at its center, producing powerful bursts of radiation that make the center of the galaxy brighter than the rest of its stars at shorter wavelengths. Mutual.
Of the thousands of galaxies astronomers have discovered, cataloged, and studied so far—and the tens of billions in the universe—only about 10 percent have active supermassive black holes at their centers. And NGC 1566 is the second brightest. Located 40 million light-years from Earth, it is also one of the closest, making it a prime target for astronomers.
Hubble’s Wide Field Camera captured a near-infrared image of NGC 1566 in 2014, which revealed long, stellar arms filled with dark streaks of interstellar dust. Even in visible and near infrared light, the galaxy’s core is bright.
Recently, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) aboard the James Webb Space Telescope took another long look at NGC 1566, this time at the longer wavelengths of mid-infrared light (the longest wavelength infrared, called far infrared). , exceeding our reach now that NASA has retired the Airborne Far Infrared Telescope).
Image editor Jodi Schmidt has turned the raw data into an eerily gorgeous image, which shows the quasi-structural scaffolding of dust that gives the galaxy its shape and structure.
The red portions of the dust filaments are regions where new stars are forming, making it easy to see the link between dense patches of dust and bursts of star formation. Dust near the dense star clusters appears bluer in the image.
“I had to increase the saturation significantly to get it to be at all colorful. Separation isn’t much otherwise,” Schmidt stated on Twitter. Turning raw data from a telescope like Webb or Hubble into an actual image is a combination of science, accurately representing the different wavelengths of light captured by a telescope, and art, making creative choices to produce a beautiful and interesting image. Even the Space Telescope Science Institute’s professional image-processing teams, which turned raw web data into stunning images released over the summer, have to grapple with similar challenges.
Earlier this month, another image editor, Mehmet Hakan Ozarach (definitely not to be confused with the similar and highly questionable TV celebrity doctor), combined Hubble and Webb data to create this stunning image of NGC 1566, which reveals layered structure details. Galaxy, from dust to star clusters.
If you look closely at the center of the galaxy, you can also see the faint shape of a bar structure across its middle. NGC 1566 is not a fully formed spiral galaxy with the elaborate structure (for example) of the great barred spiral galaxy; Instead, it’s what astronomers call an intermediate spiral galaxy.
Another major thing the image shows us is that the image editors, who are not professional astronomers but have become experts at producing images from raw telescope data (Ozarach describes himself as a “doctor who colors space”), are making real contributions to astronomy.
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