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UW Professor Part of Team Using NASA’s Webb Telescope to Reveal Gas and Dust in Nearby Galaxies

February 16, 2023
photo of a galaxy
New imagery from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is giving scientists their first look at high resolution into the fine structure of nearby galaxies and how that’s impacted by the formation of young stars. NGC 1433 is a barred spiral galaxy with a particularly bright core surrounded by double star-forming rings. For the first time, in Webb’s infrared images, scientists can see cavernous bubbles of gas where forming stars have released energy into their surrounding environment. In the image of NGC 1433, blue, green and red were assigned to Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument data at 7.7, 10 and 11.3, and 21 microns, respectively. (NASA Image)

A University of Wyoming astronomer is part of a multinational team of researchers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to get a first look at star formation, gas and dust in nearby galaxies with unprecedented resolution at infrared wavelengths.

The data have enabled an initial collection of 21 research papers that provide new insight into how some of the smallest-scale processes in our universe -- the beginnings of star formation -- impact the evolution of the largest objects in our cosmos: galaxies.

Danny Dale, UW’s Harry C. Vaughan Professor of Astronomy, is the lead author of one of the 21 papers, and his second-year graduate student, Kiana Henny, of South Whidbey Island, Wash., also has been heavily involved in the project. The initial findings were released today (Thursday) by the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The largest survey of nearby galaxies in Webb’s first year of science operations is being carried out by the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby Galaxies (PHANGS) collaboration, involving more than 100 researchers from around the globe.

“The PHANGS project has been a tremendous opportunity for UW students to become involved in truly cutting-edge science and to network with astronomers from around the world,” Dale says. “Our particular work at UW has focused on how massive clusters of stars impact the interstellar dust in their vicinity. Kiana, in particular, is carrying out a very interesting study of the most embedded stellar clusters, a study that is helping fill in important gaps in our knowledge of star formation within galaxies.”

The Webb observations are led by Janice Lee, Gemini Observatory chief scientist at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and an affiliate astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The team is studying a diverse sample of 19 spiral galaxies and, in Webb’s first few months of science operations, observations of five of those targets -- M74, NGC 7496, IC 5332, NGC 1365 and NGC 1433 -- have taken place. The results are already astounding astronomers.

“The clarity with which we are seeing the fine structure certainly caught us by surprise,” says team member David Thilker, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

“We are directly seeing how the energy from the formation of young stars affects the gas around them, and it’s just remarkable,” says team member Erik Rosolowsky, of the University of Alberta, Canada.

The images from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) reveal the presence of a network of highly structured features within these galaxies -- glowing cavities of dust and huge cavernous bubbles of gas that line the spiral arms. In some regions of the nearby galaxies observed, this web of features appears built from both individual and overlapping shells and bubbles where young stars are releasing energy.

photo of a galaxy
The spiral arms of NGC 7496 are filled with cavernous bubbles and shells overlapping one another in this image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument. These filaments and hollow cavities are evidence of young stars releasing energy and, in some cases, blowing out the gas and dust of the interstellar medium surrounding them. In this image of NGC 7496, blue, green and red were assigned to Webb’s data at 7.7, 10 and 11.3, and 21 microns, respectively. (NASA Image)

“Areas that are completely dark in Hubble imaging light up in exquisite detail in these new infrared images, allowing us to study how the dust in the interstellar medium has absorbed the light from forming stars and emitted it back out in the infrared, illuminating an intricate network of gas and dust,” says team member Karin Sandstrom, of the University of California-San Diego.

The high-resolution imaging needed to study these structures has long evaded astronomers -- until Webb came into the picture. Webb’s powerful infrared capabilities can pierce through the dust to connect the missing puzzle pieces.

For example, specific wavelengths observable by MIRI (7.7 and 11.3 microns) are sensitive to emission from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which play a critical role in the formation of stars and planets. These molecules were detected by Webb in the first observations by the PHANGS program.

Studying these interactions at the finest scale can help provide insights into the larger picture of how galaxies have evolved over time.

“Because these observations are taken as part of a Webb Treasury program, they are available to the public as they are observed and received on Earth,” says Eva Schinnerer, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and leader of the PHANGS collaboration.

The PHANGS team will work to create and release data sets that align Webb’s data to each of the complementary data sets obtained previously from the other observatories, to help accelerate discovery by the broader astronomical community.

The research by the PHANGS team is being conducted as part of General Observer program 2107. The team’s initial findings, composed of the 21 individual studies, were recently published in a special focus issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

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