Nature is stingy with its secrets. That’s why humans developed the scientific method. Without it, we’d still be ignorant and living in a world dominated by superstitions.
Astrophysicists have made great progress in understanding how stars form, thanks to the scientific method. But there’s a lot they still don’t know. That’s one of the reasons NASA built the James Webb Space Telescope: to coerce Nature into surrendering its deeply-held secrets.
New images that combine data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) JWST have just been released! The images feature four iconic astronomical objects, showcasing the capabilities of these observatories by combining light in the visible, infrared, and X-ray wavelengths. These include the NGC 346 star cluster located in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), the NGC 1672 spiral galaxy, the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16, or M16), and the spiral galaxy Messier 74 (aka. the Phantom Galaxy).
These objects were made famous by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, which took pictures of them between 1995 and 2005. Since it commenced operations, the JWST has conducted follow-up observations that provided a sharper view of these objects that captured additional features. Hubble and the JWST even teamed up to provide a multi-wavelength view of the Phantom Galaxy last year. By adding Chandra’s famed X-ray imaging capabilities to Webb’s sensitivity and infrared light, these latest images provide a new glimpse of these objects, revealing both faint and more energetic and powerful features.
You’re looking at NGC 346, a star cluster 210 light years away that is energetically pumping out brand new stars from a dense cloud of gas and dust. Between 10 and 11 billion years ago, nearly all galaxies in the Universe underwent an era of intense star formation similar to what we see in NGC 346. This flurry of stellar birth is poetically nicknamed cosmic noon. Since then, star formation in the Universe has gradually dwindled, though it still blazes away in small pockets. By studying NGC 346 and other clusters like it, we can learn more about the era of cosmic noon and the evolution of galaxies.
To that end, researchers pointed the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam infrared camera at NGC 346 last year, and they announced their preliminary findings at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting on January 11, 2023.