Galaxies are always evolving. Even our own Milky Way has evolved over the years, with astronomers recently discovering the ancient heart of our galaxy. Sometimes, we’re even able to see that evolution happening in the moment, like in one of the most recent James Webb images of a galactic merger captured in November of 2022.
The image, which was first previewed by United States Vice President Kamala Harris and French President Emmanuel Macron back in November of last year, is stunning, to say the least. The image is of a merging galaxy pair known as II ZW 96. The galaxies are roughly 500 million light-years from Earth and lie in the constellation Delphinus, according to NASA.
What makes this merger so intriguing is the way the colors of the gasses and stars combine together. This isn’t the first time that Webb has captured images of a galactic merger in action, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, either. But it is an essential image because it does give astronomers even more information about how galaxy evolution occurs.
The galactic merger of II ZW 96 was front and center for Webb back in November of 2022. Image source: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus, A. Evans
In fact, many astronomers believe that our own Milky Way galaxy will one day merge with another galaxy in something that they call the “fate of the Milky Way.” When that happens, our supermassive black hole will no doubt see some big changes, too, so it does make one wonder exactly what a merger with the Milky Way would entail for it and the other galaxy involved.
Of course, as we head into 2023, the James Webb space telescope has a lot of life ahead of it. The telescope delivered its first images in July 2022. Webb’s first images gave us more data about the early universe, as well as helped show just how powerful the telescope was for capturing images of galactic mergers and other cosmic events.
With this image of II ZW 96, the telescope continues to deliver on its promise to help astronomers learn more about the universe and how our galaxies work. A breakthrough has even made it possible for us to use Webb to see dark matter.