Question mark in space: Solved the mystery of a strangely shaped object

Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope captured an unusual phenomenon — a young stellar pair in the process of active formation of Herbig-Haro 46/47. It attracted the attention of scientists by its size and variety of details, including a mysterious figure similar to a question mark.

A detailed image of a “question mark” in the Herbig-Haro 46/47 complex. Source: NASA, ESA, CSA

The shape of this object has gone viral on the Internet. It appeared on the pages of National Geographic, Reddit, and was even subjected to fact-checking on the Snopes website. This once again confirms that deep space can give rise to many questions here on Earth. 

But what is really hidden behind this cosmic question mark? What is the nature of the strange object in the Herbig-Haro 46/47 composite image obtained with the James Webb Telescope’s NIRCam camera? Specialists of the STScI Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore (Maryland) told about this in more detail.

Herbig-Haro 46/47 complex with a “question mark” Source: NASA, ESA, CSA

“The question mark-shaped object is probably a pair of distant galaxies in the background which are merging. As they approach and interact, the shape of each galaxy can be distorted, including by ripping out long streamers of stars and gas,” explains Dr. Christopher T. Britt, an employee of the Department of Education and Public Relations at STScI.

Given the reddish color of this object, it is likely that the galaxies are at a great distance from us and have a noticeable red shift. In general, the processes of galaxy unification are quite common in the Universe. For example, our Milky Way is approaching the neighboring galaxy of the Andromeda Nebula and will merge with it in 4 billion years.

Experts from STScI Frank Summers and Roeland van der Marel, together with Gurtina Besla from Columbia University, created a visualization demonstrating a possible scenario of unification. 

It is expected that a near-frontal collision will lead to the unification of the Milky Way and the Andromeda Nebula into a new huge elliptical galaxy. However, this event will most likely not significantly affect the Earth, assuming that our planet will exist for 4 billion years.

Now back to the interacting galaxies that create this unusual cosmic question mark. Thanks to James Webb’s incredible sensitivity, it often registers distant background star systems, many of which have not been noticed until now. Sometimes such background galaxies acquire magical, mysterious and unexpectedly familiar, but uncharacteristic forms for the space.

Earlier we reported on how scientists revealed the secret of a strange phenomenon in the atmosphere of Mars.

According to PetaPixel

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