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Cartwheel Galaxy
Cartwheel GalaxyCourtesy of European Space Agency

And now kiss! These two galaxies found love in a hopeless place

A new James Webb Space Telescope image shows a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy

It’s been over three weeks since NASA unveiled the first images from its pioneering James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and the cosmic cliffs of the Carina Nebula are still living in our heads rent free. As promised, though, new images just keep coming, because god forbid we forget our overwhelming insignificance for two seconds, as we hurtle through the universe on our tiny lump of space rock.

Existential fears aside, the latest photo is another banger, showing the aftermath of an intergalactic hit and run. Released by the European Space Agency (one of NASA’s international partners on the JWST mission), the image focuses on a rare ring galaxy named the Cartwheel Galaxy, which resides about 500 million light years away from Earth in the Sculptor constellation.

The galaxy has been spotted before, notably by the JWST’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. However, the Hubble’s visible-light photographs were “shrouded in mystery” as the galaxy itself was obscured by cosmic dust. Using infrared and near-infrared imaging, the JWST looks past this debris, offering an unprecedented look at the galaxy’s central black hole, and the stars being born inside it.

According to a press release from the European Space Agency, the new glimpse into the chaotic heart of the Cartwheel Galaxy reveals how it has formed over billions of years, as the result of a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller galaxy (not visible in the released image).

“Webb’s observations underscore that the Cartwheel is in a very transitory stage,” reads the agency’s statement. “The galaxy, which was presumably a normal spiral galaxy like the Milky Way before its collision, will continue to transform. While Webb gives us a snapshot of the current state of the Cartwheel, it also provides insight into what happened to this galaxy in the past and how it will evolve in the future.”

Beyond providing higher-fidelity images of previously-observed space phenomena, the James Webb Space Telescope also allows us to see further than ever before, designed to observe the formation of some of the universe’s earliest galaxies, which emerged in the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang.

This week, the telescope also released an image of the most distant star in our known universe. Named Earendel, after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, its light took 12.9 billion years to reach Earth, and can be observed by comparing a JWST image of a massive galaxy cluster with the same image captured by the Hubble telescope earlier this year. Take a look for yourself in the thread below.