Hubble telescope captures starry tentacles of faraway 'jellyfish galaxy' in stunning detail (photo)

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured this shot of the "jellyfish galaxy" JW39, which lies about 900 million light-years from Earth. (Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, M. Gullieuszik and the GASP team)

A faraway galaxy's cosmic tentacles are on full display in a gorgeous new image captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble snapshot reveals a deceptively serene "jellyfish galaxy" called JW39, which lies over 900 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Coma Berenices. 

The JW39 galaxy, which is known for its distinct tentacle-like tails and hosts a supermassive black hole at its center just like the Milky Way does, is regularly distorted by the gravitational pull of numerous other galaxies that share its cosmic neighborhood.

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The space between galaxies in the cluster is not empty. Instead, it is filled with superheated plasma through which galaxies wade, much "like swimmers fighting against a current," NASA officials wrote in an image description published on Friday (May 26).

Like many galaxy clusters, JW39 and its neighbor galaxies experience the intergalactic gas as a headwind, which when strong enough overcomes the galaxies' gravitational influence and strips them of their gas and dust, thereby forming the tentacle-like structures.

JW39 is one of many galaxies in clusters across the universe that encounter this process, known as ram-pressure stripping, which reduces the amounts of gas and dust within galaxies. Without the cosmic ingredients to birth new stars, the galaxies eventually cease stellar production and turn into galactic burnouts

Such stripping is one of the mechanisms because of which galaxies in clusters, like JW39, hit their peak of star formation early on and stop forming stars sooner than their isolated counterparts elsewhere in the universe.

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Sharmila Kuthunur contributor

Sharmila Kuthunur is a Seattle-based science journalist covering astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration. Follow her on X @skuthunur.