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JWST Image Reveals Cosmic Question Mark and We Have Answers
What?? JWST's image of HH 46/47 has a question mark made of galaxies hidden in the background.
A few years back, in the fictional town of Patience, Colorado, an extraterrestrial visitor made landfall on our planet. The title character of SYFY's Resident Alien (streaming now on Peacock!) takes the form and identity of a human called Harry and, through choice or through force, he reveals himself to a few lucky residents.
Despite their friendship with a literal space alien, they can never really know what he knows. They can never really see the universe or their place within it the way he does. His very presence, while answering one of the most fundamental questions in the history of existence – are we alone? – raises even more questions than we will ever likely answer. Same as it ever was. Now, real life astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have uncovered a literal question hanging out in deep space.
The Universe Has a Question (Mark)
Astronomers were observing a nearby star-forming region about 1,500 light-years away. Their target was Herbig-Haro (HH) 46/47, where a pair of stars are gestating inside a diffuse cloud of gas and dust. You can see the stars in the above image, they are notable because of their red diffraction spikes. You’ll also notice a handful of other nearby stars scattered about and a dense background of more distant galaxies.
It’s in that background that eagle-eyed observers found something entirely unexpected: a punctuation mark sketched into the blackboard of deep space. This isn’t the first time the JWST has stumbled onto an accidental discovery while looking for something else. Previously, astronomers accidentally found a new asteroid in early JWST test images of the asteroid belt. At the time, astronomers noted that accidental discoveries in the background in JWST images were likely to be common. Even they couldn’t have predicted something this weird.
Importantly, we’re not actually looking at a single object and our unique point of view in the cosmos is doing a lot of legwork here. Seen from some other intergalactic vantage points, it’s likely it would look very different. Astronomers believe the question mark is actually at least two (maybe three) different galaxies all working together. The top portion could be a single distorted spiral galaxy, or it could be two spirals in the process of merging.
If so, it’s a kind of preview of what’s to come in our own galaxy, when it smashes into Andromeda about 4 billion years from now. The dot at the bottom of the question mark is likely a separate elliptical galaxy which just happens to be perched in just the right spot from our point of view. That’s about as much as we know about this cosmic quest marker for now. We might get more information with a targeted observation in the future.
Until then, it stands as a literal symbol of what we’re doing here. The whole scientific endeavor is an exercise in trying to answer questions, and the realization that every question answered is an opportunity for more we didn’t even know how to ask. Even with our eyes open to the furthest reaches of the observable universe, there will always be new questions waiting for us.
Catch Resident Alien, streaming now on Peacock. Maybe we’ll finally get some answers about what he’s really up to in Season 3!