Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the magic produced by the James Webb Space Telescope. Not only have astronomers produced some of the most strikingly beautiful images of deep space, but the space telescope has also helped us better understand what followed after a few hundred million years after the big bang.
With the help of Webb, astronomers can peer back in time and observe galaxies and stars that formed not long after the Big Bang.
And Webb continues to do its thing.
Recently, astronomers pointed the space telescope toward a galaxy not far from the Milky Way.
The results are staggering, although this time, the data was processed by an astronomy graduate student.
“I chose NGC 1365 since that was the most recent interesting target that the Space Telescope Science Institute or STScI (the organization that runs JWST) released public images of,” Redditor u/SpaceGuy44, an astronomy graduate student at a university in California, tells Inverse.
In an effort to gain a better understanding of star formation in the near reaches of the universe, scientists selected the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, known formally as NGC 1365, for some of Webb’s earliest observations, 56 million light years away. This galaxy is a star-forming galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center, and its double-barred spiral structure is visible in all its glory since it is “face-on” to Earth.
In most barred spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, an older, less metallic bar-shaped structure spans the spiral’s center.
Scientists estimate that about two-thirds of spiral galaxies are known to contain cosmic bars. Still, NGC 1365 has two bars, each encircling the other: a horizontal outer bar, and a diagonal inner bar.
We observe complex structures like bars and spirals in galaxies like NGC 1365 in part due to stars, gas, and dust orbiting the galactic center at different speeds and forming waves of different densities. Similarly, the gravity from NGC 1365’s bars may cause material to be drawn toward the galaxy’s center, thereby feeding the black hole at its core and fueling new star formation.
It is likely that the smaller and longer bar rotates more rapidly than the inner bar structure, resulting in the diagonal shape seen in images.
In almost a Z-shaped halo, the spiral arms circle around the east-west bar in a wide curve north and south.
With Webb’s NIRCam instrument, the first image shows light from the galaxy at near-infrared wavelengths, while the MIRI instrument shows light at mid-infrared wavelengths. The images u/SpaceGuy44 is describing are in a data format named FITS (Flexible Image Transport System), as opposed to the striking full-color images released by Webb’s official processing team over the past few weeks.
NASA describes FitS as the most widely used data format in astronomy for transporting, analyzing, and archiving scientific data files. As opposed to other image formats like JPG or GIF, FITS is primarily designed to store scientific data sets organized into rows and columns of information as a series of multidimensional arrays (images) and two-dimensional tables.”
The Webb archive offers FITS files that anyone can download. Still, specialized software is needed to convert them into formats that are compatible with image editing programs like Photoshop or GIMP. The next step is to select red, green, and blue filters and align the image accordingly.
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