Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

Angle down icon An icon in the shape of an angle pointing down. NASA, what is this? NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope was conducting its usual business — staring at objects of scientific interest across the cosmos — when it accidentally captured something hilariously familiar in the distant universe.

Is that a giant question mark?

??? NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

It sure looks like one. Was the universe trying to tell us something? Or ask us something? Or was it just laughing at us?

Actually, scientists think this may be a pair of galaxies merging together. They just happen to make a question-mark shape, as seen from Webb’s perspective.

“Their interactions may have caused the distorted question-mark shape,” representatives of the Space Telescope Science Institute told Space.com.

What are you playing at, James Webb Space Telescope? NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez; Insider

“This may be the first time we’ve seen this particular object,” the STScI said. “Additional follow-up would be required to figure out what it is with any certainty.”

It could also be a single galaxy with an odd shape, but a merger seems like a good explanation to Matt Caplan, an assistant professor of physics at Illinois State University.

After all, galaxies collide and merge all the time.

A merging pair of galaxies, captured by Webb. ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus, A. Evans

“The two distinct features could easily be merging galaxies in the background, with the upper part of the question mark being part of a larger galaxy getting tidally disrupted,” Caplan told Space.com. “Given the color of some of the other background galaxies, this doesn’t seem like the worst explanation. Despite how chaotic mergers are, double-lobed objects with curvy tails extending away from them are very typical.”

The bigger picture

Webb wasn’t looking for a question mark. Here’s the larger picture the telescope captured:

The full picture shows what Webb was looking at in the first place: a pair of actively forming stars, called Herbig-Haro 46/47. NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Beautiful, isn’t it? NASA released this image on July 26, saying in a statement that it showed the “antics” of two young stars that were actively forming.

“Look for them at the center of the red diffraction spikes,” NASA wrote in the release. “The stars are buried deeply, appearing as an orange-white splotch.”

The pair of stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, were growing as they fed off of gas and dust that surrounded them in a disk. The disk itself was invisible, but its shadow appeared in two dark cone-shaped regions next to the stars.

The pink-orange lobes that dominated the picture were material that the stars had been shooting out as they grew over thousands of years.

NASA says that the pair of stars is an “important object to study because it is relatively young — only a few thousand years old. Star systems take millions of years to fully form. Targets like this give researchers insight into how much mass stars gather over time, potentially allowing them to model how our own sun, which is a low-mass star, formed.”

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