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Polish students get first look at new Webb telescope images of distant galaxy

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson unveiled the series of infrared images at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw.

(CN) — NASA released a series of new images from the James Webb Space Telescope to the U.S. public on Friday, following their unveiling earlier the same day in Poland. The images, taken using two of the telescope's infrared cameras, show active star forming regions of the distant galaxy NGC 5068.

The galaxy is located some 17 million light years from Earth in the constellation of Virgo. Like our own Milky Way, it's classified as a barred spiral galaxy - meaning it contains an roughly rectangular central "bar" region from which numerous spiral arms extend. Though the Hubble Telescope and other visual-spectrum telescopes have imaged NGC 5068 before, its dense layers of gas and dust have previously obscured many of its smaller star-forming regions.

This is less of a problem for the Webb telescope, which captures images primarily in infrared light. Infrared light passes through gas and dust more easily than does light in the visible spectrum, allowing the orbital telescope to capture finer details throughout NGC 5068.

"Stars and planetary systems are born amongst swirling clouds of gas and dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble or the [Very Large Telescope]," a press release accompanying the unveiling of the new images read. "The keen vision at infrared wavelengths of two of Webb’s instruments — MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) and NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) — allowed astronomers to see right through the gargantuan clouds of dust in NGC 5068 and capture the processes of star formation as they happened."

Capturing images in infrared light, the James Webb Space Telescope is able to peer further through gas and dust in the NGC 5068 galaxy than is possible with visible-light telescopes. (ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team)

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson traveled to Warsaw to reveal the images for the first time, showcasing them as part of a student event in the Polish capital's Copernicus Science Center. They are part of NASA's ongoing efforts to accumulate observations of star formation in other galaxies. The study of star formation forms the bedrock for many advanced fields in astronomy, "from the physics of the tenuous plasma that lies between stars to the evolution of entire galaxies," NASA said.

The space agency said it hopes further observations with the James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments will yield further breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe.

"Webb collected images of 19 nearby star-forming galaxies which astronomers could then combine with Hubble images of 10,000 star clusters, spectroscopic mapping of 20,000 star-forming emission nebulae from the Very Large Telescope, and observations of 12,000 dark, dense molecular clouds identified by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array," NASA said in its Friday press release. "These observations span the electromagnetic spectrum and give astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to piece together the minutiae of star formation."

NASA communications staff did not return an inquiry for more details on the new images.

When viewed in the near-infrared spectrum of light, young stars ionizing hydrogen in the galaxy NGC 5068 create a fiery red glow. (ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team)
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