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Vivid portrait of interacting galaxies, Penguin and Egg, marks Webb’s second anniversary

Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142. At left is NGC 2937, nicknamed the Egg for its appearance. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin for its appearance. The latter’s beak-like region points toward and above the Egg.
The distorted spiral galaxy, the Penguin, and the compact elliptical galaxy, the Egg, are locked in an active embrace. A new near- and mid-infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope, taken to mark its second year of science, shows that their interaction is marked by a faint upside-down U-shaped blue glow.
The pair, known jointly as Arp 142, made their first pass between 25 and 75 million years ago — causing ‘fireworks’, or new star formation, in the Penguin. In the most extreme cases, mergers can cause galaxies to form thousands of new stars per year for a few million years. For the Penguin, research has shown that about 100 to 200 stars have formed per year. By comparison, our Milky Way galaxy (which is not interacting with a galaxy of the same size) forms roughly six to seven new stars per year.
This gravitational shimmy also remade the Penguin’s appearance. Its coiled spiral arms unwound, and gas and dust were pulled in an array of directions, like it was releasing confetti. It is rare for individual stars to collide when galaxies interact (space is vast), but the galaxies’ mingling disrupts their stars’ orbits.
Today, the Penguin’s galactic centre looks like an eye set within a head, and the galaxy has prominent star trails that take the shape of a beak, backbone, and fanned-out tail. A faint, but prominent dust lane extends from its beak down to its tail.
Despite the Penguin appearing far larger than the Egg, these galaxies have approximately the same mass. This is one reason why the smaller-looking Egg hasn’t yet merged with the Penguin. (If one was less massive, it may have merged earlier.)
The oval Egg is filled with old stars, and little gas and dust, which is why it isn’t sending out ‘streamers’ or tidal tails of its own and instead has maintained a compact oval shape. If you look closely, the Egg has four prominent diffraction spikes — the galaxy’s stars are so concentrated that it gleams.
The background of this image is overflowing with far more distant galaxies. This is a testament to the sensitivity and resolution of Webb’s infrared cameras.
Arp 142 lies 326 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

A duo of interacting galaxies known as Arp 142 commemorates the second science anniversary of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope. Their ongoing interaction was set in motion between 25 and 75 million years ago, when the Penguin (individually catalogued as NGC 2936) and the Egg (NGC 2937) completed their first pass. They will go on to shimmy and sway, completing several additional loops before merging into a single galaxy hundreds of millions of years from now.

The James Webb Space Telescope takes constant observations, including images and highly detailed data known as spectra. Its operations have led to a ‘parade’ of discoveries by astronomers around the world. It has never felt more possible to explore every facet of the Universe.

The telescope’s specialisation in capturing infrared light – which is beyond what our own eyes can detect – shows these galaxies, collectively known as Arp 142, locked in a slow cosmic dance. Webb’s observations (which combine near- and mid-infrared light from Webb’s NIRCam [Near-InfraRed Camera] and MIRI [Mid-Infrared Instrument], respectively) clearly show that they are joined by a blue haze that is a mix of stars and gas, a result of their mingling.

 Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142. At left is NGC 2937, nicknamed the Egg for its appearance. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin for its appearance. The latter’s beak-like region points toward and above the Egg.
The distorted spiral galaxy at the centre, the Penguin, and the compact elliptical galaxy at the left, the Egg, are locked in an active embrace. A new near- and mid-infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope, taken to mark its second year of science, shows that their interaction is marked by a faint upside-down U-shaped blue glow.
The pair, known jointly as Arp 142, made their first pass between 25 and 75 million years ago — causing ‘fireworks’, or new star formation, in the Penguin. In the most extreme cases, mergers can cause galaxies to form thousands of new stars per year for a few million years. For the Penguin, research has shown that about 100 to 200 stars have formed per year. By comparison, our Milky Way galaxy (which is not interacting with a galaxy of the same size) forms roughly six to seven new stars per year.
This gravitational shimmy also remade the Penguin’s appearance. Its coiled spiral arms unwound, and gas and dust were pulled in an array of directions, like it was releasing confetti. It is rare for individual stars to collide when galaxies interact (space is vast), but the galaxies’ mingling disrupts their stars’ orbits.
Today, the Penguin’s galactic centre looks like an eye set within a head, and the galaxy has prominent star trails that take the shape of a beak, backbone, and fanned-out tail. A faint, but prominent dust lane extends from its beak down to its tail.
Despite the Penguin appearing far larger than the Egg, these galaxies have approximately the same mass. This is one reason why the smaller-looking Egg hasn’t yet merged with the Penguin. (If one was less massive, it may have merged earlier.)
The oval Egg is filled with old stars, and little gas and dust, which is why it isn’t sending out ‘streamers’ or tidal tails of its own and instead has maintained a compact oval shape. If you look closely, the Egg has four prominent diffraction spikes — the galaxy’s stars are so concentrated that it gleams.
Now, find the bright, edge-on galaxy at top right. It may look like a party crasher, but it’s not nearby. Cataloged PGC 1237172, it lies 100 million light-years closer to Earth. It is relatively young and isn’t overflowing with dust, which is why it practically disappears in Webb’s mid-infrared view.
The background of this image is overflowing with far more distant galaxies. This is a testament to the sensitivity and resolution of Webb’s infrared cameras.
Arp 142 lies 326 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Let’s dance

Before their first approach, the Penguin held the shape of a spiral. Today, its galactic centre gleams like an eye, its unwound arms now shaping a beak, head, backbone, and fanned-out tail.

Like all spiral galaxies, the Penguin is still very rich in gas and dust. The galaxies’ ‘dance’ pulled gravitationally on the Penguin’s thinner areas of gas and dust, causing them to crash in waves and form stars. Look for those areas in two places: what looks like a fish in its ‘beak’ and the ‘feathers’ in its “‘tail’.

Surrounding these newer stars is smoke-like material that includes carbon-containing molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which Webb is exceptional at detecting. Dust, seen as fainter, deeper orange arcs also swoops from its beak to tail feathers.

Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142 in a horizontal image taken in mid-infrared light. At left is NGC 2937, which looks like a tiny teal oval and is nicknamed the Egg. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin, which is significantly larger and looks like a bird with a fanned tail.
Webb’s mid-infrared view of interacting galaxies Arp 142 seems to sing in primary colours. The background of space is like a yawning darkness speckled with bright, multi-coloured beads.
This image was taken by MIRI, the telescope’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument, which astronomers use to study cooler and older objects, dust, and extremely distant galaxies.
Here, the Egg appears as an exceptionally small teal oval with gauzy layers. Mid-infrared light predominantly shows the oldest stars in the elliptical galaxy, which has lost or used up most of its gas and dust. This is why the view is so different from the combined image, which includes near-infrared light.
At right, the Penguin’s shape is relatively unchanged. The MIRI image shows all the gas and dust that has been distorted and stretched, as well as the smoke-like material, in blue, that includes carbon-containing molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Next, look for the edge-on galaxy catalogued PGC 1237172 at the top right — a dim, hazy line. Find it by looking for the bright blue star with small diffraction spikes positioned over the top of its left edge. This galaxy nearly disappears in mid-infrared light because its stars are very young and the galaxy isn’t overflowing with dust.
Now, scan the full image left to right to spot distant galaxies in the background. The red objects are encased in thick layers of dust. Some are spiral galaxies and others are more distant galaxies that can only be detected as dots or smudges. Green galaxies are laden with dust and are farther away. Bluer galaxies are closer. Zoom in carefully to see if a blue dot has minuscule diffraction spikes — those are stars, not galaxies.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

In contrast, the Egg’s compact shape remains largely unchanged. As an elliptical galaxy, it is filled with ageing stars, and has a lot less gas and dust that can be pulled away to form new stars. If both were spiral galaxies, each would end the first ‘twist’ with new star formation and twirling curls, known as tidal tails.

Another reason for the Egg’s undisturbed appearance is that these galaxies have approximately the same mass, which is why the smaller-looking elliptical wasn’t consumed or distorted by the Penguin.

It is estimated that the Penguin and the Egg are about 100 000 light-years apart — quite close in astronomical terms. For context, the Milky Way galaxy and our nearest neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy, are about 2.5 million light-years apart, about 30 times the distance. They too will interact, but not for about 4 billion years.

Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142. At left is NGC 2937, nicknamed the Egg for its appearance. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin for its appearance. The latter’s beak-like region points toward and above the Egg.
The distorted spiral galaxy at the centre, the Penguin, and the compact elliptical galaxy at the left, the Egg, are locked in an active embrace. A new near- and mid-infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope, taken to mark its second year of science, shows that their interaction is marked by a faint upside-down U-shaped blue glow.
The pair, known jointly as Arp 142, made their first pass between 25 and 75 million years ago — causing ‘fireworks’, or new star formation, in the Penguin. In the most extreme cases, mergers can cause galaxies to form thousands of new stars per year for a few million years. For the Penguin, research has shown that about 100 to 200 stars have formed per year. By comparison, our Milky Way galaxy (which is not interacting with a galaxy of the same size) forms roughly six to seven new stars per year.
This gravitational shimmy also remade the Penguin’s appearance. Its coiled spiral arms unwound, and gas and dust were pulled in an array of directions, like it was releasing confetti. It is rare for individual stars to collide when galaxies interact (space is vast), but the galaxies’ mingling disrupts their stars’ orbits.
Today, the Penguin’s galactic centre looks like an eye set within a head, and the galaxy has prominent star trails that take the shape of a beak, backbone, and fanned-out tail. A faint, but prominent dust lane extends from its beak down to its tail.
Despite the Penguin appearing far larger than the Egg, these galaxies have approximately the same mass. This is one reason why the smaller-looking Egg hasn’t yet merged with the Penguin. (If one was less massive, it may have merged earlier.)
The oval Egg is filled with old stars, and little gas and dust, which is why it isn’t sending out ‘streamers’ or tidal tails of its own and instead has maintained a compact oval shape. If you look closely, the Egg has four prominent diffraction spikes — the galaxy’s stars are so concentrated that it gleams.
Now, find the bright, edge-on galaxy at top right. It may look like a party crasher, but it’s not nearby. Cataloged PGC 1237172, it lies 100 million light-years closer to Earth. It is relatively young and isn’t overflowing with dust, which is why it practically disappears in Webb’s mid-infrared view.
The background of this image is overflowing with far more distant galaxies. This is a testament to the sensitivity and resolution of Webb’s infrared cameras.
Arp 142 lies 326 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

In the top right of the image is an edge-on galaxy, catalogued PGC 1237172, which resides 100 million light-years closer to Earth. It’s also quite young, teeming with new, blue stars. In Webb’s mid-infrared-only image, PGC 1237172 practically disappears. Mid-infrared light largely captures cooler, older stars and an incredible amount of dust. Since the galaxy’s stellar population is so young, it ‘vanishes’ in mid-infrared light.

Frame is split down the middle: Hubble’s visible light image at left, and Webb’s near-infrared image at right. Both show the Egg at left and the Penguin at right.
This image shows two views of Arp 142 (nicknamed the Penguin and the Egg). The image on the left from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the target in 2013. On the right is the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s view of the same region in near-infrared light with the NIRCam instrument.
Both images are made up of several filters. The process of applying colour to Webb’s images is remarkably similar to the approach used for Hubble: the shortest wavelengths are assigned blue and the longest wavelengths are assigned red. For Webb, image processors translate near-infrared light images, in order, to visible colours. Both telescopes take high-resolution images, so there are many features to explore.
In Hubble’s visible light image, a dark brown dust lane begins across the Penguin’s ‘beak’ and extends through its body and along its back. In Webb’s near-infrared view, this dust lane is significantly fainter.
Linger on Webb’s image. A faint upside-down U shape joins the pair of galaxies. This is a combination of stars, gas, and dust that continues to mix as the galaxies mingle. In Hubble’s view, notice there is a clearer gap between the Penguin’s ‘beak’ and the top of the Egg. Toward the bottom of the Penguin’s tail are several prominent spiral galaxies, though there are a few more in Webb’s image.
The Egg itself looks similar in both images, but in Webb’s view, the galaxy shines so brightly that it causes diffraction spikes to slightly extend its gleam. The galaxy at top right appears about the same size, but many more pinpricks of stars appear in Webb’s view.
Now compare the backgrounds. Hubble shows many distant galaxies in visible light, though areas in the corners that are completely black were outside the telescope’s field of view. Many more distant galaxies gleam in Webb’s infrared image. This is a testament to the sensitivity and resolution of Webb’s near-infrared camera, and the advantages of infrared light. Light from distant galaxies is stretched as it travels across the Universe, so a significant portion of their light can only be detected at longer wavelengths.
Explore Webb’s near- and mid-infrared light image and its mid-infrared light-only image.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Webb’s image is also overflowing with distant galaxies. Some have spiral and oval shapes, like those threaded throughout the Penguin’s ‘tail feathers’, while others scattered throughout are shapeless dots. This is a testament to the sensitivity and resolution of the telescope’s infrared instruments. (Compare Webb’s view to the 2013 image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope here.) Even though these observations only took a few hours, Webb revealed far more distant, redder, and dustier galaxies than previous telescopes — one more reason to expect Webb to continue to expand our understanding of everything in the Universe.

Arp 142 lies 326 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Hydra.

Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142. At left is NGC 2937, nicknamed the Egg for its appearance. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin for its appearance. The latter’s beak-like region points toward and above the Egg.
This image of interacting galaxies Arp 142, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) and MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument), shows compass arrows, a scale bar, and a colour key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to direction arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above).
The scale bar is labelled in light-years, which is the distance that light travels in one Earth-year. (It takes three years for light to travel a distance equal to the length of the scale bar.) One light-year is equal to about 9.46 trillion kilometres.
The scale bar is also labelled in arcseconds, which is a measure of angular distance on the sky. One arcsecond is equal to an angular measurement of 1/3600 of one degree. There are 60 arcminutes in a degree and 60 arcseconds in an arcminute. (The full Moon has an angular diameter of about 30 arcminutes.) The actual size of an object that covers one arcsecond on the sky depends on its distance from the telescope.
This image shows invisible near- and mid-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which NIRCam and MIRI filters were used when collecting the light. The name of each filter is the visible light colour used to represent the infrared light that passes through that filter.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Second year of science operations: in review

Over its second year of operations Webb has advanced its science goals with new discoveries about other worlds, the lifecycle of stars, the early Universe and galaxies over time. Astronomers have learned about what conditions rocky planets can form in and detected icy ingredients for worlds, found tellurium created in star mergers and studied the supernova remnants SN 1987A and the Crab Nebula.

Looking into the distant past, Webb has solved the mysteries of how the Universe was reionised and hydrogen emission from galaxy mergers, and seen the most distant black hole merger and galaxy ever observed. Observations with Webb have also confirmed the long-standing tension between measurements of the Hubble constant, deepening a different mystery around the Universe’s expansion rate.

Webb has continued to produce incredible images of the cosmos, from the detailed beauty of the Ring Nebula, to supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, to a team effort with the the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and ESA’s Euclid telescope looking at the iconic Horsehead Nebula. Webb imagery was also combined with visible light observations from Hubble to create one of the most comprehensive views of the Universe ever, an image of galaxy cluster MACS 0416.

Two interacting galaxies known as Arp 142 in a horizontal image taken in mid-infrared light. At left is NGC 2937, which looks like a tiny teal oval and is nicknamed the Egg. At right is NGC 2936, nicknamed the Penguin, which is significantly larger and looks like a bird with a fanned tail.
This image of interacting galaxies Arp 142, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), shows compass arrows, scale bar, and colour key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to direction arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above).
The scale bar is labelled in light-years, which is the distance that light travels in one Earth-year. (It takes three years for light to travel a distance equal to the length of the scale bar.) One light-year is equal to about 9.46 trillion kilometres.
The scale bar is also labelled in arcminutes, which is a measure of angular distance on the sky. One arcsecond is equal to an angular measurement of 1/3600 of one degree. There are 60 arcminutes in a degree and 60 arcseconds in an arcminute. (The full Moon has an angular diameter of about 30 arcminutes.) The actual size of an object that covers one arcsecond on the sky depends on its distance from the telescope.
This image shows invisible near- and mid-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which NIRCam and MIRI filters were used when collecting the light. The name of each filter is the visible light colour used to represent the infrared light that passes through that filter.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Press release from ESA Webb.