(CN) — NASA publicly released a new deep-space image from the James Webb Space Telescope on Wednesday, but not before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron had a chance to preview it.
The pair of world leaders saw the image, depicting two galaxies intertwining, during a Wednesday morning visit to NASA headquarters in Washington. They were also shown a new composite image of the famous Pillars of Creation, a photogenic region of the larger Eagle Nebula. The technology used to capture the images was developed in collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, or ESA.
“Today we have the occasion to celebrate the cooperation of our two nations in space... today we build on the progress we have made and today we will also identify additional areas of collaboration and cooperation,” Harris said in a statement. “Space remains a place of undiscovered and unrealized opportunity.”
The two galaxies Harris and Macron saw are located some 500 million light years from Earth, in the Delphinus constellation. They are known by the astronomic designation II ZW 96, and are in the process of merging into a single, larger galaxy. Individually, both galaxies once had a typical spiral-arm shape. But the gravitational disturbance they exert on each other has pulled them into an elongated serpentine formation. Bright bands of gas and dust have already linked the two galaxies' nuclei, triggering the birth of new stars.
"It is these star-forming regions that made II ZW 96 such a tempting target for Webb," NASA said in a Wednesday press brief accompanying the public release of the image. "The galaxy pair is particularly bright at infrared wavelengths thanks to the presence of the star formation."
Unlike older telescopes like Hubble, Webb captures images primarily in the infrared spectrum of light. The naked human eye cannot see infrared light, but its long wavelengths penetrate gas and dust more easily than light in the visible spectrum. This allows Webb's infrared cameras to detect bodies like II ZW 96 - and the more distant galaxies surrounding it - with unprecedented detail.
II ZW 96 is especially interesting because it belongs to a grouping of celestial objects known as luminous infrared galaxies. As the name suggests, these bodies shine particularly bright in the infrared spectrum - some of them several hundred billion times brighter than our own sun.
The other image Harris and Macron previewed was of the Pillars of Creation, a series of long, thin gas clouds in the Eagle Nebula made famous by Hubble Telescope images captured in 1995.
The Pillars and the Eagle Nebula are located some 7,000 light years from Earth in the Serpens constellation, and are a cradle for new star formation in our own galaxy. While the Pillars are a relatively small formation in the Eagle Nebula, they still stretch about 5 light years across. For comparison, the maximum estimate of our own solar system's diameter, based on the sun's sphere of gravitational influence, is between 1.5 and 2 light years.
Webb captured both images using its Near-InfraRed Camera and the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, camera technology developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Arizona and the ESA. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are using these tools to explore galactic systems in tandem with prior generations of telescopes.
"An international team of astronomers proposed a study of complex galactic ecosystems – including the merging galaxies in II ZW 96 – to put Webb through its paces soon after the telescope was commissioned," NASA said Wednesday. "Their chosen targets have already been observed with ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, which will provide astronomers with insights into Webb’s ability to unravel the details of complex galactic environments."
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