Celebrating One Year of James Webb Telescope Image of Stephan's Quintet

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Captures the Enchanting Beauty of Stephan's Quintet. Credit: ESO, L. Calcada

June 20, 2023

Stephan's Quintet, a captivating visual grouping of five galaxies, has fascinated astronomers for over a century. But it was exactly one year ago that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) unveiled a groundbreaking image of this galaxy group, shedding new light on the mysteries of galactic evolution and black holes. This extraordinary image, captured by Webb's powerful infrared vision and high spatial resolution, has provided scientists with never-before-seen details of this cosmic dance.

Stephan's Quintet, also known as the Hickson Compact Group 92 (HCG 92), has four galaxies that are tightly intertwined, engaged in a cosmic tango. NGC 7320, the fifth galaxy, appears to be separate and in the foreground compared to the others. What makes this galaxy group particularly intriguing is its proximity to Earth—while NGC 7320 resides 40 million light-years away, the other four galaxies are approximately 290 million light-years distant. This relative closeness allows astronomers to witness and study the interactions and mergers between galaxies, providing valuable insights into the processes driving galaxy evolution.

The image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope unveils a magnificent mosaic, Webb's largest image to date, covering an area equivalent to about one-fifth of the Moon's diameter. Composed of nearly 1,000 separate image files, this mosaic consists of over 150 million pixels, enabling scientists to delve into the intricate details of Stephan's Quintet.

The image reveals sparkling clusters of millions of young stars and regions of starburst, where new stars are being born. It showcases sweeping tails of gas, dust, and stars being drawn from galaxies due to gravitational interactions. One of the most striking features captured by Webb is the immense shock waves created as NGC 7318B, one of the galaxies in the group, tears through the cluster. These shock waves provide crucial insights into the effects of galactic interactions on star formation and the disturbance of gas within galaxies.

Moreover, Webb's image provides unprecedented detail of outflows generated by a black hole residing within Stephan's Quintet. In particular, the topmost galaxy, NGC 7319, harbors an active galactic nucleus housing a supermassive black hole 24 million times the mass of the Sun. The telescope's Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) allowed scientists to study the active galactic nucleus with great precision. By analyzing the spectral features of the galactic core, Webb's instruments unveiled the hot gas near the black hole and measured the velocity of bright outflows. These findings open new avenues for understanding the behavior of supermassive black holes and their impact on galaxy evolution.

The James Webb Space Telescope's image of Stephan's Quintet is not only a feast for the eyes but also a treasure trove of scientific knowledge. Combined with the most detailed infrared image ever captured by MIRI and NIRCam, the data collected by Webb will provide valuable information about various aspects of galactic phenomena. Scientists will gain insights into the feeding and growth rates of supermassive black holes, observe star-forming regions in greater detail, and explore the emission from dust, which was previously impossible to obtain.

Located in the constellation Pegasus, Stephan's Quintet continues to captivate astronomers and enthusiasts alike. Since its discovery by Édouard Stephan in 1877, this cosmic dance has been a source of wonder and fascination. Thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we now have a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics and transformative processes occurring within this galaxy group.

The James Webb Space Telescope stands as a testament to human ingenuity and international collaboration. Led by NASA in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), this premier space science observatory has opened new frontiers in our exploration of the universe. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center oversees the mission, while the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners contribute their expertise.

As we celebrate one year since the release of the James Webb Space Telescope image of Stephan's Quintet, we eagerly anticipate the discoveries and revelations this revolutionary observatory will continue to unveil in the years to come. Webb's legacy is not only in the extraordinary images it captures but also in the knowledge and understanding it imparts, unraveling the mysteries of our universe and our place within it.