NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Spots a Sonic Boom Bigger Than the Milky Way

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Spots a Sonic Boom Bigger Than the Milky Way

One of the most stunning images ever taken by NASA’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope is of the Stephan’s Quintet, a group of five galaxies approximately 290 million light-years away. While the first pristine picture released last year was impressive on its own, the Webb team is also teaming up with other telescopes to reveal new insights into the group, including a large cataclysmic shock wave caused by an intergalactic collision.

Astronomers using observations from Webb along with the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) have detected a sonic boom several times larger than the Milky Way caused by the collision of galaxies in the Stephen Quintet. The findings, which were presented at an American Astronomical Society press conference on January 9, revealed insights into the gas clouds in Stephan’s Quintet along with the possible formation of a new galaxy.

At the heart of the observation is a galaxy called NGC 7318b – which is on a collision course with its sister galaxy NGC 7318a. However, NGC 7318b is also colliding with the rest of Stephan’s Quintet, creating massive disruptions in the surrounding clouds of hydrogen gas.

“As this intruder crashes into the cluster, it is colliding with an old stream of gas that was likely caused by a previous interaction between two other galaxies and is causing a giant shock wave to form,” Philip Appleton, an astronomer at Caltech’s Infrared. Processing and Analysis Center and the project’s principal investigator, said in a statement.

He explained that the shock wave creates a “highly turbulent” layer, resulting in the formation of “unexpected structures” as well as the recycling of molecular hydrogen gas. This gas can be used to form stars and, eventually, more galaxies.

However, Appleton also adds that the team still doesn’t fully understand the science and data behind gas cycles. More research is needed to elucidate its underlying mechanics and implications.

Fortunately, astronomers are better prepared than ever. Now that Webb is in orbit and paired with powerful radio telescopes like ALMA, researchers are armed with the best tools in history to study distant phenomena occurring in places like Stephan’s Quintet. The team now plans to use arrays of spectroscopic telescopes to study the X-ray signatures of the galaxy cluster – providing even more insight into the mysterious and chaotic celestial body.

“These new observations have given us some answers, but ultimately showed us how much we still don’t know,” Appleton said. He later added: “Basically, we have one side of the story. Now it’s time to get the next one.

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