Why James Webb's Cartwheel Galaxy Image is the Most Spectacular Yet | Unveiled

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In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the latest image from the James Webb Space Telescope: the Cartwheel Galaxy! This unusual galaxy formation is 500 million light years away from Earth, but Webb is so advanced that we're getting to see it up close and personal - and here's everything we've learnt!

Why James Webb’s Cartwheel Galaxy Image is the Most Spectacular Yet

With every new image released by this incredible telescope, we’re seeing the universe in an all new light and in all new detail. Those first five James Webb images, released in July 2022, might’ve been a tough act to follow… but with every passing week we’re getting more and more visuals that are truly a wonder to behold.

So, this is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring the reasons why James Webb’s cartwheel galaxy image is the most spectacular yet.

So far, so good. The James Webb telescope had long been touted as one of the most eagerly anticipated space missions of recent times, with the pre-launch tension ramped up thanks to various delays, push-backs, and an ever more eye-watering budget. But now it’s off the ground, away into space, and boy is it delivering.

NASA certainly started the month of August off with a bang, releasing a fresh image of the distinctive “cartwheel galaxy”. Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this galaxy - it had previously been captured by the Hubble Telescope, and has been a source of much mystery ever since - but it is the first time we’ve seen it like this. An explosion of pink light dusted with glittery, powdery blues and a scattering of red hot yellows and oranges, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this image was merely of a recent firework display. It’s not, although it is still cause to celebrate!

What we’re seeing here is one of the best known examples of a “ring galaxy”, which NASA explains is “a structure less common than spiral galaxies like our Milky Way”. At first glance it looks something like a bicycle wheel, or perhaps an all-seeing eye in space… with those reddish wisps of matter serving as an iris, and the dense black hole at the center doubling up as a pupil. But, really, we have a good idea about what’s actually going on here, with the James Webb image serving to fill in our astronomical models better than ever before.

At one time, it’s thought that there was a more standard spiral galaxy where the cartwheel is now… and the current structure only came to form when that spiral encountered a huge, head-on collision with another galaxy, some 300 million years ago. That other galaxy has since passed on, and can’t actually be seen in Webb’s latest image… but it certainly had a long-lasting effect. Among other things, the collision inspired a phenomenal rush of energy and matter outwards, creating the distinctive “two ring” shape we see today. NASA describes the situation “like ripples in a pond after a stone is tossed into it”.

Those ripples have since expanded outwards for literally hundreds of millions of years, which in itself has served to dramatically reshape this particular piece of cosmological landscape. At the very heart of the cartwheel galaxy, as NASA explains, there remains a bright core with a tremendous amount of hot dust circling around the always enigmatic galactic center. But the outer regions of this particular galaxy are arguably even more interesting. Following that ancient collision, and due to the exploding expansion of matter that’s been happening ever since, we have a massive amount of star formation that’s taking place here. The outer ring of the cartwheel galaxy just keeps on going and going, bringing in gas and dust from all around and thereby birthing all new stars and, in turn, all new star systems. As per the most widely supported theory, we know the universe itself started with the “big bang”... but it might be said that this is something like a “mini bang” taking place inside of that larger structure.

What’s especially intriguing, though, and what’s particularly highlighted by the latest Webb image, is that we can see how the cartwheel galaxy is beginning to return to its spiral galaxy roots. From inside to out, there are several whooshing “arms” of pinkish light. These are comparable to the dazzling arms of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. We know that nothing in space stands still, and these packed structures are testament to that. In the case of the cartwheel, they’re gas, dust and objects that are gradually being brought back into a more expected route and movement through the void… while the long-lasting impact of the collision that had once set them askew begins to lessen its hold.

It further highlights just how rare a find this is in space. It’s just not everyday (or even every generation) that we uncover a galaxy that’s experiencing such unusual conditions. And to be able to see it in the detail we have now is testament not just to the value of Webb, but to the progress we’ve made in science and astronomy in general over the last eighty years. Because, as mentioned at the top of this video, it’s not like the cartwheel galaxy is a brand new discovery. For that, you have to go back to 1941, when the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky first set eyes upon it. At that time, Zwicky reportedly considered the cartwheel to be “one of the most complicated structures awaiting explanation”... and he was right!

Scientists have mused and theorized over it for decades, and it wasn’t until images were released by the Hubble telescope in the mid-1990s that we got our first, widely available glimpse of it. At the time, the Hubble image was something of a game changer, too, showing (as it does) a yellowish glowing center surrounded by a sparkling blue outer ring. The distinctions between the older Hubble and brand new Webb images, though, are clear, and have now been widely highlighted by NASA and the scientific community, especially on social media. Along with the new additions of those steadily re-forming spiral arms, and the generally significantly enhanced color, we also bear witness to countless more stars and objects within the cartwheel itself. And then, while the Hubble image is set against a mostly black backdrop, the Webb image is alive with thousands more galaxies… all brought to the fore thanks to Webb’s superior capabilities to penetrate through the gas and dust to reveal what’s really there.

This is something we’ve seen in all the images released by Webb so far. It’s as though we’re only now getting to truly see the universe, for the first time. Naturally, the two most noticeable “other” galaxies are the cartwheel’s largest companions, shown on the left-hand side of the Webb image… and then there are some even further away that still manage to stand out a little brighter than most. But count up all the instances of color in this image as a whole, match all of those up to a galaxy or star cluster that’s out there somewhere, and the immense scale of the universe begins to make itself known. This might be just one tiny section of the sky as we see it, and focussed in on the cartwheel galaxy in particular, but it’s an image that (much like the others from Webb) inspires a major shift in how we view space.

The cartwheel galaxy is situated some 500 million light years away from us. There is an almost incomprehensible distance between us and it, and yet we’re slowly getting to know what it’s like out there. Looking ahead to the future, it’s perhaps unlikely that any kind of far-flung, sci-fi technology will ever physically get us there - short of wormholes becoming a reality. But, still, it pays to know exactly what the universe has in store, and this small section of it is much more energetic and unusual than most. For scientists and astronomers, it’s a source of huge possibility in our quest to better understand how and why galaxies form. For the more casual onlooker who’s just interested in finding out about space, it’s another mind-boggling moment of realization as to the enormity of what’s there.

What’s your verdict on the new cartwheel galaxy image? Is it the best one from Webb so far? And what do you think will happen in the future to this particular galaxy? It’s been expanding and expanding for hundreds of millions of years, fueling the birth of countless new stars as it goes… but with those stretching, spiral arms seemingly beginning to claw back into shape, we could also be witnessing the establishment of a new era for it. That is, so long as another galaxy doesn’t one day come along, and smash it back into a bizarre new shape all over again!

At present, there are no signs of that happening… but the story so far is an engrossing one, showcasing the inner workings of the universe, and the fine line between galactic balance and cosmological chaos. And that’s why James Webb’s cartwheel galaxy image is the most spectacular yet.