NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed new details about the galaxy group “Stephan’s Quintet,” which is now visible in an image form. Because of their proximity, scientists have a front-row seat to galactic interactions and mergers. Astronomers seldom see how interconnected galaxies cause star formation in one another. They also rarely understand how the gas in these galaxies has been disturbed. Stephan’s Quintet provides a wonderful “laboratory” to study these fundamental processes common across all galaxies. The image shows outflows caused by supermassive black holes in the galaxies. This detail is unprecedented.
The Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, has a powerful mid-infrared view showing unprecedented details of Stephan’s Quint, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI penetrated dust-encrusted regions to reveal massive shock waves, tidal tails and gas, and stars stripped from outer parts by interactions. MIRI also told hidden areas of star formation.
Stephan’s Quintet, best known for its appearance in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is a remarkable visual grouping of five galaxies. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed Stephan’s Quintet in a new light. This considerable mosaic covers approximately one-fifth of the Moon’s circumference and is Webb’s most comprehensive image to date. It comprises almost 1000 separate image files and contains more than 150 million pixels. With its high spatial resolution, Webb’s powerful infrared vision allows him to see details that were impossible before in this galaxy group. The image features sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and starburst areas of new star birth. Gravitational interactions are pulling out vast tails of stars, gas, and dust from many galaxies. The Webb Space Telescope captured massive shock waves when NGC 7318B smashed through the cluster.
The black hole’s top spectrum shows a region of hot, ionized gases, such as iron, argon, and neon. The peak denotes it at specific wavelengths. The five galaxies that make up Stephan’s Quintet are collectively known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 or HCG 92. NGC 7320, the fifth and most distant galaxy, is at the forefront compared to the other four. NGC 7320 is located just 40 million light years from Earth. The other four galaxies, NGC 3316A, NGC 3316B, NGC 7318B, and NGC 7318B, are approximately 290 million light years away. Even though this is still quite close cosmically, it’s not as far as distant galaxies that are billions of light years away. Astronomers can better understand structures in distant galaxies by studying these relatively close ones. Scientists can enjoy a close-up view of the interactions and merging between galaxies, which are crucial for all aspects of galactical evolution. Astronomers rarely get to see in such detail how interconnected galaxies cause star formation in one another or how the gas in these galaxies is being disturbed. Stephan’s Quintet provides a great “laboratory” to study these fundamental processes that affect all galaxies.
This image shows some of the most important emission lines that NIRSpec has seen. They represent different phases and gases. Scientists can discover the structure of outflow by using atomic hydrogen in blue and yellow. Teal iron ions trace the locations of hot gas. Red is molten hydrogen. This is an icy and dense color, outlining the black hole’s outflowing gas and fuel source. These images have been filtered to show the structure and activity of the surrounding gas. Scientists have gained unprecedented information using NIRSpec about the black hole’s outflow. These galaxies are relatively close to each other, which helps scientists understand the evolution of galaxies in a more distant universe. (Credit: NASA. ESA. CSA. STScI.) The topmost galaxy of the group, NGC 7319, still houses an active galactic nucleus. This supermassive black hole is approximately 24 million times larger than the Sun. It actively pulls in material and emits light energy equivalent to 40 million Suns.
Webb used the Near-Infrared Spectrograph and Mid-Infrared Instrument to study the active galactic nucleus. The Integral Field Units (IFUs), which combine a camera with a spectrograph, provided Webb’s team with a “data cube,” a collection of images showing the galactic core’s spectrum features. The IFUs are similar to medical Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in that scientists can “slice and dice” the data into multiple images for detailed analysis. Webb penetrated the dusty shroud surrounding the nucleus to find hot gas and measure the velocity of bright outflows. The telescope captured these outflows at a level of detail never before seen.
NASA Headquarters manages the Science Mission Directorate mission. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt in Maryland, oversees Webb and the work of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Northrop Grumman as mission partners. Several NASA centers also contributed to this project, including NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, Southern California, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, Ames Research Center, and others. NASA and ESA provided MIRI. The instrument was designed and built jointly by the MIRI European Consortium, a consortium of European Institutes with national funding (The MIRI European Consortium), and JPL.