James Webb telescope reveals the 'bones' of a distant galaxy in stunning new image

The spiral galaxy IC 5332
The spiral galaxy IC 5332 (Image credit: ESA/NASA/CSA/J. Lee)

A new photo taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has revealed the hidden gaseous "bone" structure of a distant galaxy — and it's absolutely spectacular.

The cosmic knot of gas, dust and stars belongs to the spiral galaxy IC 5332, located in the constellation Sculptor more than 29 million light-years from Earth. As it sits nearly perfectly face-on with respect to Earth, its spiral arms can be seen incredibly clearly.

This isn't the first time IC 5332 has had its photo snapped. The 66,000 light-year-wide galaxy — roughly two-thirds the size of our Milky Way — was also imaged in the past by the Hubble Space Telescope. But Hubble can’t see in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, whereas the James Webb Space Telescope can. As a result, the updated image contains so many previously obscured details that it looks almost completely different.

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Hubble's image of IC 5332 shows the structure of some of the spiral arms obscured by clouds of dust.

Hubble's image of IC 5332 shows the structure of some of the spiral arms obscured by clouds of dust. (Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST and PHANGS-HST Teams)

"The Hubble image shows dark regions that seem to separate the spiral arms, whereas the Webb image shows more of a continual tangle of structures that echo the spiral arms' shape," representatives of the European Space Agency (ESA), which captured the new image, wrote in a statement.

The ESA explained that this difference is because of the galaxy's dust, which is much more likely to scatter ultraviolet and visible light (which Hubble sees in) than the infrared frequencies available to the JWST. Different stars are also visible across the two images because some stars shine brighter across different frequencies than others.

To snap this image, the JWST used its Mid-Infrared Instrument — a specialized camera that, in order to remove infrared interference effects from other heat sources, needs to be supercooled to minus 446.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 266 degrees Celsius). The JWST's location in the cold vastness of space, away from Earth, is also essential for helping it spot faint infrared light, as the heat of our planet would drown out the distant galaxy's signal.

About 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the $10 billion space observatory was launched to a gravitationally stable location 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth — known as a Lagrange point — in December 2021. The JWST is the most advanced space telescope ever built, with the ability to peek inside the atmospheres of far-away exoplanets and read the earliest chapter of the universe's history in its faintest glimmers of light — which have been stretched to infrared frequencies from billions of years of travel across the expanding fabric of space-time.

Six months of painstaking setup and calibration saw the telescope's instruments and its 21-foot-wide (6.5 meters) gold-plated mirror readied for operation. Following the unveiling of its first images in July, the telescope has been wowing with a steady stream of mindblowing snaps of our near and distant universe. To name just a few, the telescope has captured stunning images of cartwheel galaxies; Einstein rings; Orion's sword; Neptune's ghostly halo; and the deepest image of the universe ever produced.

In the case of IC 5332, ESA scientists hope that by comparing the Hubble and JWST images of the distant galaxy, they can learn more about the galaxy’s composition and structure, as well as how these may translate to more general patterns witnessed across all spiral galaxies.

Originally published on Live Science.

Ben Turner
Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.