The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51, has long attracted the attention of astronomers and stargazing enthusiasts for its stunning spiral structure. But now, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we can observe this celestial wonder in a whole new light. The newly published image, obtained by the JWST telescope’s NIRCam and MIRI instruments, reveals intricate details and hidden features of the galaxy’s spiral arms, making it perhaps the most mesmerizing image of the Whirlpool Galaxy to date.
The Whirlpool Galaxy gets its name from its swirling structure, which resembles water spiraling down a drain. This spiral galaxy of grandiose design displays its swirling arms, which is typical of other galaxies of this type. However, the integrated data from the JWST instruments allow us to see more than just the spiral arms.
The warm dust concentrated along the arms is represented in the image as dark red regions. Active star formation is taking place in these regions, leading to the bright blue-white core of the galaxy. In addition, orange and yellow regions indicate ionized gas formed by recently formed star clusters.
One of the most remarkable discoveries made by JWST is the presence of cavernous black bubbles inside the arms. These bubbles allow us to penetrate through the gas and dust of the galaxy, giving us a glimpse into distant stars like never before. Such unprecedented observations provide valuable insights into the interplay between stellar feedback processes and star formation in the extragalactic medium.
NGC 5195, a small yellowish galaxy located at the outermost tip of one of the arms of the Whirlpool, is also visible in images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. Despite its smaller size, the gravitational influence of NGC 5195 is thought to contribute to the distinct spiral arms of the Whirlpool.
This observation of the Whirlpool galaxy is part of a series of observations called Feedback in Emerging extrAgalactic Star clusTers (FEAST). FEAST aims to expand our understanding of stellar feedback and its effects on star formation outside our Milky Way galaxy. By studying these processes, scientists will be able to develop more accurate models of star formation on a universal scale.
The Whirlpool Galaxy, located in the constellation Canes Venatici, is about 31 million light-years away from Earth. Its proximity and distinct features have made it a favorite of amateur astronomers for decades. But now that JWST has unveiled this mesmerizing image, we can appreciate the beauty and complexity of the Whirlpool Galaxy in unprecedented detail.