The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as M51, is one of the most recognizable objects in the night sky. It is close enough and prominent in the northern sky that amateur astronomers have been sharing amazing images of it for decades. But you’ve never seen anything like this: M51 as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This image contains data from the NIRCam and MIRI telescope instruments, which show amazing detail and reveal hidden features between the spiral arms.
The galaxy is nicknamed the Vortex due to its swirling structure, which resembles water swirling around a drain. Like other large-design spiral galaxies, the twisting spiral arms are prominent.
Combined data from JWST’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Medium Infrared Instrument (MIRI) reveal warm dust concentrated along the spiral arms that appear as dark red regions. The bright regions along the arms are star-forming regions that give rise to the blue-and-white central core. The orange and yellow regions show regions of ionized gas produced by newly formed star clusters. Next, the James Webb Space Telescope reveals cavernous black bubbles within the arms, which allow us to see distant stars through the galactic gas and dust like never before.
The Whirlpool Galaxy lies 31 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici.
In other images, like this one from the Hubble Space Telescope, a small yellowish galaxy appears at the outer end of one of the swirling arms. This is NGC 5195 and the two interacting galaxies. Although much smaller than the vortex, the gravitational influence of NGC 5195 is thought to be partly responsible for the vortex’s prominent and distinct spiral arms.
The JWST observations of M51 were made as part of a series of observations called Feedback in Emerging Extragalactic Star Clusters, or FEAST. The FEAST observations were designed to “shed light on the interplay between stellar reactions and star formation in environments outside our galaxy, the Milky Way.” According to the European Space Agency. Stellar feedback is the term used to describe the flow of energy from stars into their forming environments, and is a crucial process in determining the rates at which stars form. Scientists say understanding stellar feedback is vital to building accurate global models of star formation.