NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sees a Sonic Boom bigger than the Milky Way

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sees a Sonic Boom bigger than the Milky Way

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sees a Sonic Boom bigger than the Milky Way

One of the most stunning images yet created by NASA’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope belongs to Stephan’s Quintet, a group of five galaxies about 290 million light-years away. While the first pristine snapshot released last year was breathtaking on its own, the Webb team is also working with other telescopes to uncover new insights into the group, including a catastrophic massive shock wave caused by an intergalactic collision.

Astronomers using Webb’s observations in conjunction with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered a sonic boom many times greater than that of the Milky Way, caused by colliding galaxies in Stephan’s Quintet. The findings, which were presented at a press conference of the American Astronomical Society on Jan. 9, revealed insights into 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 also collides with the rest of Stephan’s Quintet, creating massive disturbances in the surrounding hydrogen gas clouds.

“As this intruder collides with the group, it collides with an ancient gas stream likely created by a previous interaction between two of the other galaxies, creating a giant shock wave,” said Philip Appleton, an astronomer at Caltech’s Infrared. Processing and Analysis Center and principal investigator on the project, said in a statement.

He explained that the shock wave creates a “highly turbulent” layer, resulting in 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 still doesn’t fully understand the science and data behind the gas cycles. More research is needed to figure out the underlying mechanics and implications.

Fortunately, astronomers are better prepared than ever. Now that Webb is in orbit and linked to powerful radio telescopes like the 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 spectroscopic telescope arrays to study the galaxy group’s X-ray signatures, giving them even more insight into the mysterious, chaotic 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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