In an earlier post, I mentioned that our natural environment goes far beyond Earth. We might better understand ourselves if we look beyond our “grain of sand.” Our galaxy is but one of an estimated hundred billion galaxies, ours containing more than a hundred billion stars.
Even if only a small fraction of one percent of all stars have planets with intelligent life forms, that could perhaps be tens of billions of civilizations (see the Drake Equation). These civilizations will not likely ever communicate with each other since they are far apart in space/time. Even if we received a communication from one of them, by the time our return signal reached their planet they would likely be long extinct.
All the political rivalries, all the wars, and all the destruction of our biosphere are quite inconsequential in the scheme of things. We make ourselves out to be more than we really are. Earth and the universe will get along fine without us.
Webb Inspects the Heart of the Phantom Galaxy, as it existed 32 million years ago: (click to enlarge)
Image description: Delicate gray, webby filaments form a spiral pattern winding outwards from the center of the galaxy. These spiral arms of the galaxy are traced by blue and bursts of pink; these are the regions in which stars are forming. The very heart of the galaxy is colored blue and has speckles, which are young stars, which are forming around the nucleus of the galaxy.
This image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows the heart of M74, otherwise known as the Phantom Galaxy. Webb’s sharp vision has revealed delicate filaments of gas and dust in the grandiose spiral arms which wind outwards from the centre of this image. A lack of gas in the nuclear region also provides an unobscured view of the nuclear star cluster at the galaxy’s centre.
M74 is a particular class of spiral galaxy known as a ‘grand design spiral’, meaning that its spiral arms are prominent and well-defined, unlike the patchy and ragged structure seen in some spiral galaxies. The Phantom Galaxy is around 32 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pisces, and lies almost face-on to Earth. This, coupled with its well-defined spiral arms, makes it a favorite target for astronomers studying the origin and structure of galactic spirals.
Webb gazed into M74 with its Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) in order to learn more about the earliest phases of star formation in the local Universe. These observations are part of a larger effort to chart 19 nearby star-forming galaxies in the infrared by the international PHANGS collaboration. Those galaxies have already been observed using the Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories. The addition of crystal-clear Webb observations at longer wavelengths will allow astronomers to pinpoint star-forming regions in the galaxies, accurately measure the masses and ages of star clusters, and gain insights into the nature of the small grains of dust drifting in interstellar space.
Hubble observations of M74 have revealed particularly bright areas of star formation known as HII regions. Hubble’s sharp vision at ultraviolet and visible wavelengths complements Webb’s unparalleled sensitivity at infrared wavelengths, as do observations from ground-based radio telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, ALMA. By combining data from telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum, scientists can gain greater insight into astronomical objects than by using a single observatory — even one as powerful as Webb! MIRI was contributed by ESA and NASA, with the instrument designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (the MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.