NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope discovers a sonic boom larger than the Milky Way

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope discovers a sonic boom larger than the Milky Way
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One of the most stunning images captured by NASA’s powerful to date The James Webb Space Telescope is part of Stephan’s quintet, a group of five galaxies about 290 million light-years away. While the first pristine snapshot released last year was stunning on its own, the Webb team is also collaborating with other telescopes to gain new insights into the group — including a catastrophically massive shockwave caused by an intergalactic collision would.

Astronomers using Webb’s observations in conjunction with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have detected a sonic boom many times larger than the Milky Way caused by colliding galaxies in Stephan’s quintet. The results, presented at a press conference by the American Astronomical Society on Sept. 1, revealed glimpses of gas clouds in Stephan’s quintet along with the possible formation of a new galaxy.

The focus of the observation is a galaxy called NGC 7318b, which is on a collision course with its sister galaxy NGC 7318a. However, NGC 7318b also collides with the rest of Stephan’s quintet, leading to massive perturbations of the surrounding hydrogen gas clouds.

“As this intruder plunges into the group, it collides with an ancient gas streamer likely caused by a past interaction between two of the other galaxies, causing a giant shock wave to form,” says Philip Appleton, astronomer at Caltech’s Infrared Processing and analysis center and lead investigator of the project, said in a statement.

He explained that the shock wave creates a “highly turbulent” layer, leading to the formation of “unexpected structures” and 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 does not yet fully understand the science and data behind the gas circuits. Further research is needed to find out the underlying mechanisms and effects.

Fortunately, astronomers are better prepared than ever. Now that Webb is in orbit and coupled to powerful radio telescopes like ALMA, researchers are equipped with the finest instruments in history to study far-flung phenomena that occur at locations like Stephan’s Quintet. The team now plans to use spectroscopic telescope arrays to study the galaxy group’s X-ray signatures — gaining even more insight into the mysterious, chaotic celestial body.

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

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