Catch sight of! This beautiful galaxy image merges Hubble and Webb data in stunning detail

Hubble and Webb Space telescopes are teaming up to give us this dazzling and colorful view of spiral galaxy NGC 1566: a swirling framework of dense dusty filaments, glowing star clusters and bright bursts of star formation, with a supermassive black hole at its blazing heart.

NGC 1566 is a rare bird among galaxies: gas and dust are still falling into the supermassive black hole at its center, driving powerful bursts of radiation that, at shorter light wavelengths, make the galaxy’s center shine brighter than all other stars combined.

Of the thousands of galaxies astronomers have found, cataloged, and studied to date — and the tens of billions in the universe — only about 10 percent have actively feeding supermassive black holes at their centers. And NGC 1566 is the second brightest of them. At 40 million light-years from Earth, it’s also one of the closest, making it a prime target for astronomers.

Hubble’s wide-field camera captured a near-infrared view of NGC 1566 in 2014, showing long, swirling arms lit by stars and laced with dark filaments of interstellar dust. Even in visible and near-infrared light, the galaxy’s core is bright.

This image, captured by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, shows a near-infrared view of NGC 1566.STScI

Recently, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) aboard the James Webb Space Telescope took another long look at NGC 1566, this time in the even longer wavelengths of the mid-infrared light (the longest infrared wavelengths, known as the far-infrared, lie beyond that our range now that NASA has retired its airborne far-infrared telescope).

Image editor Judy Schmidt transformed the raw data into an eerily beautiful image that shows the almost skeletal framework of dust that gives the galaxy its shape and structure.

This mid-infrared image shows NGC 1566’s dusty spine.STScI/Judy Schmidt

The reddish parts of the dust filaments are areas where new stars are forming, making the connection between dense dust patches and bursts of star formation easy to see. Dust near dense star clusters appears more bluish in the image.

“I had to increase the saturation enormously to make it colorful at all. Otherwise, the separation is not very much,” said Schmidt on twitter. Converting raw data from a telescope like Webb or Hubble into an actual image is a mix of science, accurately representing the different wavelengths of light captured by the telescope, and art, making creative decisions to produce an image that is both beautiful and is also interesting. Even the teams of professional image processors at the Space Telescope Science Institute that turned raw Webb data into the stunning images released over the summer face similar challenges.

Earlier this month, another image editor, Mehmet Hakan Özsaraç (not to be confused with the highly problematic TV celebrity doctor of the same name), merged the Hubble and Webb data to create this stunning image of NGC 1566, which the layers reveal details of the galaxy’s structure, from dust to star clusters.

This image combines Webb and Hubble data to show a more complete view of NGC 1566’s structures.STScI/Mehmet Hakan Özsaraç

If you look closely at the center of the galaxy, you can also see the faint form of a bar structure at its center. NGC 1566 is not a full-fledged Barred Spiral Galaxy with the elaborate structure (for example) of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy; instead it is what astronomers call an intermediate spiral galaxy.

Another important thing the image shows us is that image editors who are not professional astronomers but have become experts in creating images from raw telescope data (Özsaraç describes himself as “a doctor who colors space” ), make a real contribution to astronomy.

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