James Webb Telescope Delivers Again With Astonishing Whirlpool Galaxy Pic

If you’re a fan of interstellar photography, and really who isn’t, you should wake up every day thanking your lucky stars the James Webb Telescope exists.

Case in point, the latest spectacular image from the NASA/ESA/CSA joint project.

It’s a widescreen shot of a spiral galaxy called M51, located some 27 million light years from our blue marble. That may seem far, but by space standards, it’s pretty close—close enough that M51 is a favorite subject of professional and amateur astronomers alike.

The galaxy is colloquially known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, and taking a look at the full, uncropped Webb image, you can see why.

the whirlpool galaxy

Photo: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team.


Cosmic interactions

“In this image, the dark red regions trace the filamentary warm dust permeating the medium of the galaxy. The red regions show the reprocessed light from complex molecules forming on dust grains, while colors of orange and yellow reveal the regions of ionized gas by the recently formed star clusters,” a press release from the European Space Agency (ESA) helpfully explains.

The James Webb Telescope carries both a Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) and a Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI). The above image is the result of combining data from both instruments and then subjecting that data to extensive post-processing by scientists back on terra firma.

But what’s the point of collecting photographs like these, aside from the fact that they make excellent computer desktop images and serve as constant reminders of humanity’s infinitesimally tiny place in the universe?

In the case of the Whirpool Galaxy, it’s about studying cosmic interactions.

two galaxies in space

An image of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) taken by the Hubble Telescope in 2005. In this image, you can clearly see a secondary galaxy interacting with M51. Photo: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


Star creation

According to NASA, the Whirlpool Galaxy has unusually prominent and stable spiral arms. Most scientists think that’s because the galaxy is interacting with a small galaxy known as NGC 5195. That smaller galaxy’s proximity to Whirlpool is what causes the latter’s distinctive, vortex-like appearance (see above photo). The phenomenal gravitational forces at work are also birthing new stars, and it’s this star creation that scientists are mostly interested in.

“By studying these processes, we will better understand how the star formation cycle and metal enrichment are regulated within galaxies as well as what are the time scales for planets and brown dwarfs to form,” the ESA press release noted.

What will the always-on-point James Webb Telescope show us next? Who can say? But whatever it is, it’s sure to be fantastic.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).