NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale
The James Webb Space Telescope recently captured a stunning new image of what scientists call a pair of actively forming stars.
But eagle-eyed viewers quickly caught on to an even smaller – and for some, more intriguing – detail at the very bottom of the frame: an orange formation in the unmistakable form of a question mark, tail and of all.
The photo – which is actually a composite of half a dozen infrared images – has gone viral on social media sites like X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit after the European Space Agency (one of the three agencies behind the telescope) shared it late last month, prompting ESA to clarify weeks later that “this is not is not a hoax”.
“The aliens know we found them and now they’re laughing at us,” one Reddit user wrote.
The photo shows a pair of closely related young stars known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, surrounded by a disk of gas and dust, and dotted with distant galaxies and stars in the background.
NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale (STScI)
The ESA says Herbig-Haro 46/47 is important to study because it is “only a few thousand years old” – and as stars take millions of years to form, its young age gives researchers a chance to observe how stars accumulate mass over time (and potentially model the formation of one of the most famous stars, the sun).
Even so, scientists acknowledge that this is not the only notable formation in the photo.
Macarena Garcia Marin, Project Webb scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore (which manages science operations for the telescope), told NPR in an email that the question mark is “a great example of how, with Webb, no matter what you’re watching, you can have surprises in the background.”
And she has at least one theory as to why it resonates so much with people.
“I think we all love finding familiar shapes in the sky; it creates a deep connection between our human experience and our language in this case (a question mark!) and the beauty of the universe around us,” writes García Marin. “I think it exemplifies the human need for exploration and wonder, and for me it begs the question of how many more interesting objects are waiting to be explored with Webb!”
So what is it exactly?
Scientists say the punctate-shaped object appears to be the merger of two or more galaxies – the intense process by which galaxies collide (the Milky Way itself is the byproduct of such a merger).
“It looks like a random group or alignment of 2 or 3 galaxies,” Kai Noeske, ESA’s communications program manager, said by email. “The upper part of the question mark looks like a distorted spiral galaxy, possibly merging with a second galaxy.”
ESA study scientist Nora Luetzgendorf says that although it is too distant to be sure, the question mark arc likely originates from tidal interaction between galaxies, “and the dot might as well just be a smaller spherical galaxy”.
Galaxy mergers are actually a very common astrophysical phenomenon, she adds — even our own galaxy interacts with its neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. Garcia Marin similarly calls them “a normal phase in the life and evolution of galaxies.”
But that doesn’t mean we see them very often.
Everything is “a question of projection”, explains Garcia Marin. She says the reason we see the question mark-shaped galaxies is a result of both the angle at which they met and our own perspective.
“This ‘question mark’ figure perfectly illustrates the projection effects when looking up at the sky,” she adds. “What we are measuring is a 2D image of a universe that is filled with objects spanning time and space. We see their projection; this ?-shaped object is much farther away from us than HH 46/47 and it has no direct impact on it.”
But she notes an interesting link between the two phenomena.
In general, she says, the process of galaxies interacting with each other can trigger star formation – “and objects like HH 46/47, the main subject of the image, could be born.”
NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI/AP
What can it teach us?
Galaxy mergers generate “all kinds of beautiful shapes and structures,” says Garcia Marin, particularly depending on the angle from which they are viewed.
An example is Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five nearby galaxies located in the constellation Pegasus. It was one of the first images released by the Webb Telescope last summer, showing a swirling cluster of stars and sweeping tails.
Luetzgendorf says images of some of the closer (relatively speaking) interacting galaxies, like the Whirlpool galaxy and the Antennae galaxies, somewhat resemble the structure people are talking about now.
“You can see the similarities and how from a different perspective and further away it can look like a question mark,” she adds.
Given that mergers are relatively common and new photos are really focused on rising stars, is there anything new we can learn from the question mark hidden inside? Garcia Marin thinks so.
“If this is a merger of galaxies,” she says, “its relevance would be to see how it fits into what we know about mergers and their importance to the evolution of galaxies.”
#People #panicking #question #mark #space #Scientists #explain