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WASHINGTON – The bombardment of a cosmic body in the form of a glowing question mark is one of the latest photos taken by NASA. James Webb Space Telescope – Scientists think they know what it could be.
The original near-infrared image, released on July 26, depicted a pair of young stars called Herbig-Haro 46/47. Found 1,470 light-years away in the constellation Vela within the Milky Way, stars are still actively forming and orbiting each other.
Both have been observed and studied by space and ground-based telescopes since the 1950s, but Webb’s highly sensitive telescope has allowed for the highest resolution and most detailed images to date. It has the ability to observe the universe at longer wavelengths than other space telescopes.
The Webb telescope illuminates information about the origins of our universe, but the appearance of this mysterious object in the background of this image leaves more questions than answers. The cosmic question mark has not been observed or studied closely, so scientists aren’t entirely sure of the object’s origin and composition.
But they do have some ideas based on its shape and location.
“The first thing you can rule out is that it’s a star in the Milky Way,” said Matt Kaplan, associate professor of physics at Illinois State University. “Stars always have these really big bumps, and that’s because stars are like points. They’re called diffraction from the edges of the mirrors and the struts that support the kind of camera in the middle.”
Kaplan added that the Webb telescope usually allows you to see six or eight star “prongs” if you look closely. “It tells you right away it’s not a star,” he said of the question-mark-shape phenomenon.
It could be a merger of two galaxies, most likely billions of light-years apart, much further than Herbig-Haro 46/47, said Christopher Brett, an education and outreach scientist in the Office of Public Outreach at Space Telescope Science. The institute that manages the science operations of the Webb telescope.
There are “many, many galaxies outside our own Milky Way,” Brett said. “This sounds like the kind of thing that you get fairly often — as galaxies grow and evolve through cosmic time — that they sometimes collide with their close neighbors.
“And when that happens, it can be deformed into all kinds of different shapes — including a question mark, it seems.”
It’s likely the first time this particular object has been seen, experts said, but galaxies merging into a question-mark-like shape have happened before — including a backward version formed by the Antennae galaxies in the Corvus constellation. In addition, most galaxies have had multiple interactions like this over their history, Brett said, but they don’t last very long.
“There’s no way to project anything (in) the space,” Kaplan said. “The sun moves as it revolves around the galaxy, and the galaxy, which is made up of stars, moves in whatever direction gravity pulls it.”
This integration is also the ultimate fate of our galaxy, which will merge with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years, Brett said — but what form our galaxy will take is unknown.
Brett said the shape of the question mark could be “an indication of a merger where these two galaxies interact gravitationally”. “The question mark hook at the top looks a lot, to me, like what we call a tidal tail, where the stream of stars and gas kind of ripped off and blasted off into space.”
Brett and Kaplan said that collecting more spectral data about the object will reveal more details such as its distance and chemical compositions.
Nobody would do this, Kaplan said, because that’s pretty much “a local guy finds a chicken tender that looks like George Washington.” “But there are () observations you can make if you’re motivated enough.”
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