The grand-design spiral galaxy M51 is enveloped by graceful and winding arms that are captured in this image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Unlike other galaxies which have ragged or disrupted spiral arms, M51 has prominent and well-developed arms that are clearly visible. This portrait was taken by the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) of the telescope and shows a stunning filamentary medium, where empty cavities and bright filaments alternate to form a wave-like pattern emanating from the spiral arms. The yellow regions indicate newly formed star clusters in the galaxy, which are illuminated by the reprocessed stellar light by dust grains and molecules in the medium of the galaxy.
M51, or NGC 5194, is a well-studied galaxy pair that lies about 27 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Canes Venatici. The interaction between these two galaxies has caused them to be one of the better-studied pairs in the night sky. It is thought that the gravitational influence of the smaller companion NGC 5195 is partially responsible for the stately nature of M51’s spiral arms. In order to further understand stellar feedback and star formation outside of our own galaxy, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captured a series of observations titled FEAST (Feedback in Emerging extrAgalactic Star clusTers). These observations were designed to shed light on the interplay between stellar feedback and star formation in other environments, which is a crucial factor in determining star formation rates.
The aim of the FEAST observations is to discover and study stellar nurseries in galaxies beyond our Milky Way. Before the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) became operative, other observatories such as the Atacama Large Millimetre Array in the Chilean desert and Hubble have given us a glimpse of star formation either at the onset (tracing the dense gas and dust clouds where stars will form) or after the stars have destroyed with their energy their natal gas and dust clouds. Webb is opening a new window into the early stages of star formation and stellar light, as well as the energy reprocessing of gas and dust.
Scientists are seeing star clusters emerging from their natal cloud in galaxies beyond our local group for the first time. They can measure how long it takes for these stars to pollute with newly formed metals and to clean out the gas (these time scales are different from galaxy to galaxy). By studying these processes, we can better understand how star formation cycle and metal enrichment are regulated within galaxies as well as what are the time scales for planets and brown dwarfs to form. Moreover, once dust and gas is removed from the newly formed stars, there is no material left to form planets.