It was created to look back at the dawn of the universe and capture the spectacular beauty of space.
And that’s exactly what NASA’s James Webb Super Space Telescope has done again, capturing a mesmerizing image of the moment when two spiral galaxies collided.
We may be seeing the merger for the first time now, but the collision started about 700 million years ago and triggered a massive burst of star formation.
This birth had so much power and energy at its heart that it emanated more light than a trillion suns, making it the perfect target for Webb because it shone’like a beacon amidst a sea of other galaxies’.
By comparison, our own Milky Way galaxy is as bright as 10 billion suns.
Captivating: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured a mesmerizing image of the moment when two spiral galaxies collided. They merge 250 million light-years from Earth
The two galaxies — collectively called Arp 220 — merge 250 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens (the Serpent).
HOW DOES JAMES WEBB LOOK BACK IN TIME?
The further away an object is, the further back in time we look.
This is due to the time it takes for light to travel from the object to us.
James Webb’s larger mirror will allow him to see almost all the way back to the beginning of the universe, about 13.7 billion years ago.
With his ability to view the universe in longer wavelength infrared light, James Webb will be able to see some of the most distant galaxies in our universe, certainly with greater ease than Hubble’s visible/ultraviolet view.
This is because light from distant objects is stretched by the expansion of our universe — an effect known as redshift — pushing the light out of the visible range and into the infrared.
Source: Royal Museums Greenwich
They are the closest example of an ultra-luminous infrared galaxy (ULIRG) – and the brightest of the three galactic mergers closest to Earth.
Even closer to home, the Milky Way will one day also merge with its closest neighbor, Andromeda.
We don’t need to worry just yet though, because this will happen in a few billion years and it will take 10 billion years to complete.
Arp 220, meanwhile, glows brightest in infrared light, making it an ideal target for Webb because, unlike its Hubble predecessor, this is one of the ways it views the cosmos.
Each of the combined galactic cores is surrounded by a rotating, star-forming ring that emits the dazzling light the space telescope captured in an almost spiked, starburst feature.
As the two galaxies began to merge, the abundant gas and dust caused an intense birth of stars, most of them concentrated in their dusty central regions.
About 200 massive clusters of stars lie in this packed region, which is about 5,000 light-years across.
This corresponds to about five percent of the diameter of the Milky Way.
“The amount of gas in this small region is equivalent to all the gas in the entire Milky Way galaxy,” wrote the Webb team in a description of the image.
The $10bn (£7.4bn) observatory isn’t the first to document the Arp 220 merger.
In 2002, Hubble images helped detect the cores of Arp 220’s galaxies, while NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory also captured X-rays emanating from these centers, which are 1,200 light-years apart.
Fascinating: We may be seeing the merger now for the first time, but the collision started about 700 million years ago and triggered a massive burst of star formation
The Hubble Space Telescope has previously detected the merging galaxies (pictured)
Arp 220 glows brightest in infrared light, making it an ideal target for Webb (pictured) because, unlike its Hubble predecessor, this is one of the ways it views the cosmos
Chandra’s discovery is important because the observatory focuses on detecting massive, violent objects in the universe, such as black holes and supernovae.
Astronomers therefore believe that the X-rays point to supermassive black holes located at the centers of both Arp galaxies.
However, Hubble’s images showed that star formation “suddenly stopped everywhere” about 100 million years ago, possibly as a result of the collision.
This suggests that Arp 220 is now in a post-starburst phase, meaning it isn’t producing stars at such extreme, ephemeral velocities.
Webb was launched into space in December 2021 with the aim of looking back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.
It will also observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies
The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7bn (£5bn), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 degrees Celsius).
It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.
The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It orbits Earth at a speed of about 17,000 mph (27,300 km/h) in low Earth orbit at about 340 miles altitude.