Stare into the core of the Phantom Galaxy.
New images from humanity’s most powerful space telescopes — the legendary Hubble telescope and its successor the James Webb Space Telescope — reveal unprecedented detail in this magnificent distant spiral galaxy. It’s 32 million light-years away.
The over 30-year-old Hubble telescope views light we can see (visible light), while the Webb telescope views a type of light with longer wavelengths (called “infrared light”) that isn’t visible to us. Together, these instruments gather bounties of data that reveal new insights about what lies in the distant cosmos.
The middle image below shows the combined views of the Hubble and Webb telescopes. What you can see:
The areas of bright pink in the reddish spirals are active star-forming regions
The bright blue dots are other stars
The core of the galaxy glows cyan and green. These are older stars clustered around the galactic center.
Credit: ESA / Webb / NASA / CSA / J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team / Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt
In the Webb image by itself (the top image of this story or the right-side image in the comparison above), it’s easy to see the many stars (shown in blue) amassed in the galaxy’s core. A lack of gas at the heart of the Phantom Galaxy makes this view exceptionally clear.
Hubble continues to capture dazzling views of distant stars and galaxies. Meanwhile, Webb, stationed 1 million miles away from Earth, is expected to reveal new insights about the universe. Here’s how Webb will achieve unparalleled things:
Giant mirror: Webb’s mirror, which captures light, is over 21 feet across. That’s over two and a half times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror. Capturing more light allows Webb to see more distant, ancient objects. The telescope will peer at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
“We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, told Mashable last year.
Infrared view: Webb is primarily an infrared telescope, meaning it views light in the infrared spectrum. This allows us to see far more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths than visible light, so the light waves more efficiently slip through cosmic clouds; the light doesn’t as often collide with and get scattered by these densely-packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared eyesight can penetrate places Hubble can’t.
“It lifts the veil,” said Creighton.
Peering into distant exoplanets: The Webb telescope carries specialized equipment, called spectrometers, that will revolutionize our understanding of these far-off worlds. The instruments can decipher what molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — be they gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will look at exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find?
“We might learn things we never thought about,” Mercedes López-Morales, an exoplanet researcher and astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics-Harvard & Smithsonian, told Mashable in 2021.