James Webb Space Telescope reveals hidden star formation in pair of colliding galaxies (photo)

The James Webb Space Telescope photographed a collision of two galaxies that's sparking a flurry of star formation invisible to other telescopes. 

The wave of star birth was triggered by the encounter of  two galaxies known by the common name IC 1623. The merging couple is producing stars at a rate 20 times faster than that of our own Milky Way galaxy, scientists said.

The galactic clash was previously imaged by other telescopes, including Webb's predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope, which specializes in detecting optical light (the kinds of wavelengths visible to the human eye). But because IC 1623 is wrapped in a thick shield of dust, astronomers had not been able to peer deeper inside the galaxies to see the forming stars. 

Related: Why the James Webb Space Telescope's amazing 'Pillars of Creation' photo has astronomers buzzing

The pair of merging galaxies known as IC 1623 photographed by the James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus & A. Evans)

The James Webb Space Telescope, with its dust-penetrating infrared gaze, pierced through the shroud with ease, revealing a luminous center that is giving off so much infrared light (essentially heat) that the galaxy produces the trademark eight-spike refraction pattern usually seen in Webb's images containing bright stars. 

When compared to an earlier image of IC 1623 by Hubble, Webb's view reveals a completely new layer in the merging galaxies' structure, which is depicted as the central lump of bright red and orange material in the image.

The merging pair of galaxies known as IC 1623 imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The earlier image of the merging galactic pair taken by the Hubble Space Telescope reveals a much duller formation. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University))

The two galaxies in this image are some 270 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cetus. Astronomers believe that the merger may also be producing a supermassive black hole, which, however, is not visible in this image. 

The image was created from a combination of data captured by three of Webb's four instruments, the MIRI and NIRCam cameras and the NIRSpec spectrometer, the European Space Agency, which released the image on Tuesday (Oct. 25), said in a statement.

A study describing the observations was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.