The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has provided many answers about the origins of the universe since it was launched in December 2021. It is also continuously giving rise to new questions. What puzzled astronomers worldwide from a recent image was an object located just below the stars resembling a giant question mark in space.
Could the universe be asking us a question?
On June 26, for instance, experts from the European Space Agency released a new image captured by JWST offering a detailed look at two actively forming young stars located in the Vela Constellation – about 1,470 light-years away from Earth – and known as Herbig-Haro 46/47.
“Ever since astronomers have turned their eyes to the stars, we have been tempted to discern patterns in what we find up there. Many nebulae, which are clouds of interstellar gas, and galaxies have been named for their apparent forms, though most of these patterns noticed by early astronomers have become rather harder to see as telescopes have improved and the details in each object have become clearer,” said Gregory Brown, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
“What was once seen as a faint smudge with the rough shape of a Christmas tree or a witch’s head are now more often seen as complex clouds and filaments of gas and dust. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to look at this galaxy with telescopes of such quality that even this relatively simple form will be lost in the new detail we can see.”
“I am sorry to tell people it’s probably not a message to humanity – but it does show the amazing ability of this telescope to explore our universe as never seen before,” added Stephen Wilkins, an astronomer at the University of Sussex.
While it is still unclear what this astronomical object might be, its color and shape already offer some hints. According to representatives of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore (which manages JWST’s operation), it is probably a distant galaxy, or potentially interacting galaxies, with their interactions causing the distorted question mark-shape.
A similar explanation has been recently put forward by Matt Caplan, an assistant professor of Physics at Illinois State University. In his view, the two distinct features could be merging galaxies, with the upper side of the question mark being part of a larger galaxy getting tidally disrupted.
“Given the color of some of the other background galaxies, this doesn’t seem like the worst explanation. Despite how chaotic mergers are, double lobed objects with curvy tails extending away from them are very typical,” he said.
Although Caplan admitted that there could be many other explanations of what this cosmic object represents, it is most likely not a star, due to the lack of the eight-pronged refraction spikes which seem to emanate outward from stars in JWST’s images as a result of its mirrors.
“This may be the first time we’ve seen this particular object. Additional follow-up would be required to figure out what it is with any certainty. Webb is showing us many new, distant galaxies – so there’s a lot of new science to be done!” the STScI representatives concluded.
Merging galaxies is a common event in the universe, often resulting in larger, elliptical galaxies. This process can take several hundred million to over a billion years to complete.
As two galaxies come close, their mutual gravitational forces interact, causing stars, gas, and dust to mix and interact in complex ways. This can trigger intense star formation, and if both galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their centers, these black holes can eventually merge too.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large, space-based observatory, a collaboration between NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency), and the Canadian Space Agency. It was launched on December 25, 2021, and serves as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
The JWST carries instruments that will allow it to observe the universe in the long-wavelength (orange to red) visible light through the mid-infrared (0.6 to 28 micrometers). This feature is vital for understanding the formation of stars and planets, detecting the faint light of the universe’s first galaxies, and probing the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA