By Sarvesh K. Kilariaar
London, United Kingdom
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a glowing question mark in the background of a new image of the forming stars Herbig-Haro 46/47. (NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale)
Since the launch of NASA’s James Webb Telescope in 2021, it’s produced a number of high-resolution images that have assisted astronomers tremendously in their study of our universe. But on this occasion, it has produced a question (quite literally).
On the 26th of June, the European Space Agency released a highly detailed image of the relatively young and close-to-earth stars Herbig-Haro 46 and 47. In fact, by using the new Near Infrared Camera (NIC), astronomers were able to get the best resolution yet for these stars. Due to this and the telescope's remarkable sensitivity, viewers were able to quickly discern this glowing, red object with a remarkable resemblance to a ‘question mark’. According to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the colour tells us it's quite distant (making its identification more taxing), but due to the insane resolution of the photograph, scientists are able to make a guess.
Christopher Britt at the STScI suggests that the question mark is actually the merging of two galaxies. ‘Merging’ is a completely normal process that happens to galaxies over their lifetime. Something that even our own galaxy will go through "in about 4 billion years or so", Britt says.
What's intriguing is that Space.com reported that this might be the first time astronomers have seen this ‘question mark’ in space. Astronomers in 2008 saw similar merging galaxies much closer to our planet, but nothing which was shaped quite like this one. The study of this ‘question mark’ could potentially provide information about galaxy mergers and the evolution of our own universe.
David Helfand at Columbia University concludes that there is nothing extraordinary about it, explaining that the sheer number of light specks found in each image from the telescope makes finding punctuation marks relatively probable.
He goes on to say that although the two objects seem to be connected, they could be completely unrelated if one is much closer to Earth than the other.
Needless to say, the chances of this object being something unprecedented remain subdued. However, nothing has been confirmed from NASA as of yet, and it’s likely that further investigation will be needed before this ‘question mark’ can be fully answered. But given the sheer number of similarly intriguing objects being captured by this telescope, this investigation remains unlikely.
So the celestial ‘question mark’ remains a mystery but is undoubtedly a testimony to the remarkable efficacy of the James Webb Telescope and the constantly advancing study of deep space.