Pic of the Week: A Wreath Just in Time for Christmas

Image (Credit): Spiral galaxy NGC 7469 face-on. (NASA)

This week’s image is from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). It is a face-on view of wreath-like spiral galaxy NGC 7469, which is about 220 million light-years from Earth.

Here is a little more from the European Space Agency on the image:

While NGC 7469 is one of the best studied AGNs in the sky, the compact nature of this system and the presence of a great deal of dust have made it difficult for scientists to achieve both the resolution and sensitivity needed to study this relationship in the infrared. Now, with Webb, astronomers can explore the galaxy’s starburst ring, the central AGN, and the gas and dust in between. Using Webb’s MIRI, NIRCam and NIRspec instruments to obtain images and spectra of NGC 7469 in unprecedented detail, the GOALS team has uncovered a number of details about the object. This includes very young star-forming clusters never seen before, as well as pockets of very warm, turbulent molecular gas, and direct evidence for the destruction of small dust grains within a few hundred light-years of the nucleus — proving that the AGN is impacting the surrounding interstellar medium. Furthermore, highly ionised, diffuse atomic gas seems to be exiting the nucleus at roughly 6.4 million kilometres per hour — part of a galactic outflow that had previously been identified, but is now revealed in stunning detail with Webb. With analysis of the rich Webb datasets still underway, additional secrets of this local AGN and starburst laboratory are sure to be revealed.

A prominent feature of this image is the striking six-pointed star that perfectly aligns with the heart of NGC 7469. Unlike the galaxy, this is not a real celestial object, but an imaging artifact known as a diffraction spike, caused by the bright, unresolved AGN. Diffraction spikes are patterns produced as light bends around the sharp edges of a telescope. Webb’s primary mirror is composed of hexagonal segments that each contain edges for light to diffract against, giving six bright spikes. There are also two shorter, fainter spikes, which are created by diffraction from the vertical strut that helps support Webb’s secondary mirror.