The James Webb Space Telescope was conducting its usual business — staring at objects of scientific interest across the cosmos — when it accidentally captured something hilariously familiar in the distant universe.
Is that a giant question mark?
It sure looks like one. Is the universe trying to tell us something? Or ask us something? Or is it just laughing at us?
Actually, scientists think this may be a pair of galaxies merging together. They just happen to make a question-mark shape, as seen from Webb’s perspective.
“Their interactions may have caused the distorted question mark-shape,” representatives of the Space Telecope Science Institute told Space.com.
“This may be the first time we’ve seen this particular object,” STScI said. “Additional follow-up would be required to figure out what it is with any certainty.”
It could also be a single galaxy with an odd shape, but a merger seems like a good explanation to Matt Caplan, an assistant professor of physics at Illinois State University.
After all, galaxies collide and merge all the time.
“The two distinct features could easily be merging galaxies in the background, with the upper part of the question mark being part of a larger galaxy getting tidally disrupted,” Caplan told Space.com. “Given the color of some of the other background galaxies, this doesn’t seem like the worst explanation. Despite how chaotic mergers are, double lobed objects with curvy tails extending away from them are very typical.”
The bigger picture
Webb wasn’t looking for a question mark. Here’s the larger picture the telescope captured:
Beautiful, isn’t it? NASA released this image on July 26, saying in a statement that it shows the “antics” of two young stars that are still actively forming.
“Look for them at the center of the red diffraction spikes,” NASA wrote in the release. “The stars are buried deeply, appearing as an orange-white splotch.”
The pair of stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, are growing as they feed off of gas and dust that surrounds them in a disk. The disk itself is invisible, but its shadow appears in two dark cone-shaped regions next to the stars.
The pink-orange lobes that dominate the picture are material that the stars have been shooting out as they grow over thousands of years.
NASA added that the pair of stars is an “important object to study because it is relatively young – only a few thousand years old. Star systems take millions of years to fully form. Targets like this give researchers insight into how much mass stars gather over time, potentially allowing them to model how our own sun, which is a low-mass star, formed.”