Skip to main content

Scientists explain cosmic ‘question mark’ spotted by Webb space telescope

The shape of a question mark captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.
NASA, ESA, CSA

Considering the myriad of unknowns that still exist for scientists exploring the vastness of the universe, the recent discovery in deep space of what seems to be a giant question mark feels highly appropriate.

Captured by the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, the bright, distinctive object clearly bears the shape of a question mark, leaving some stargazers wondering if the cosmos is teasing us, or perhaps motivating us to keep on searching the depths of space for the secrets that it may reveal.

But after spending some time analyzing the image, scientists believe it most likely shows a pair of galaxies merging, with Webb’s perspective causing the event to take on the shape of the familiar punctuation mark.

“It’s probably a distant galaxy, or potentially interacting galaxies [whose] interactions may have caused the distorted question mark shape,” the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which manages Webb’s science operations, told space.com.

“Additional follow-up would be required to figure out what it is with any certainty,” according to the Institute, adding that this could well be the first time astronomers have seen a cosmic question mark.

The image that includes the mark was released by the Webb team at the end of June, but it’s only just started to receive widespread attention.

The main part of the capture (below) offers a detailed look at two actively forming young stars ( Herbig-Haro 46/47) located 1,470 light-years from Earth in the Vela Constellation. The stars are surrounded by a disk of material that they on feed as they grow. The question mark can just about be spotted in the background at the bottom of the image (we’ve put a green circle around it).

An image of deep space by the Webb telescope that also includes an object that's the shape of a question mark.
NASA, ESA, CSA. Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

The Webb telescope, which is located about a million miles from Earth, recently celebrated its first year of operations by sharing yet another stunning image from deep space.

The $10 billion project is a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. The aim is to make groundbreaking discoveries about the origins of the universe while also searching for distant planets that may support life.

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
The expansion rate of the universe still has scientists baffled
This image of NGC 5468, a galaxy located about 130 million light-years from Earth, combines data from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes. This is the most distant galaxy in which Hubble has identified Cepheid variable stars. These are important milepost markers for measuring the expansion rate of the Universe. The distance calculated from Cepheids has been cross-correlated with a Type Ia supernova in the galaxy. Type Ia supernovae are so bright they are used to measure cosmic distances far beyond the range of the Cepheids, extending measurements of the Universe’s expansion rate deeper into space.

The question of how fast the universe is expanding continues to confound scientists. Although it might seem like a fairly straightforward issue, the reality is that it has been perplexing the best minds in physics and astronomy for decades -- and new research using the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope doesn't make the answer any clearer.

Scientists know that the universe is expanding over time, but what they can't agree on is the rate at which this is happening -- called the Hubble constant. There are two main methods used to estimate this constant: one that looks at how fast distant galaxies are moving away from us, and one that looks at leftover energy from the Big Bang called the cosmic microwave background. The trouble is, these two methods give different results.

Read more
See what James Webb and Hubble are observing right now with this tool
james webb hubble live tracker screenshot 2024 03 06 220259

If you're looking for a relaxing way to peruse the fascinating sights of space on your lunch break, then a newly updated tool from NASA has you covered. The Space Telescope Live tools show the current targets of the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, letting you browse the cosmos from the perspective of two of the hardest-working telescopes out there.

You can visit the web-based tools at WebbTelescope for the James Webb Space Telescope and HubbleSite for the Hubble Space Telescope. Clicking on a link will bring you to a portal showing the current and past observations of the telescope and a ton of detail about the observations.

Read more
See 19 gorgeous face-on spiral galaxies in new James Webb data
This collection of 19 face-on spiral galaxies from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope in near- and mid-infrared light is at once overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) captured millions of stars in these images. Older stars appear blue here, and are clustered at the galaxies’ cores. The telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) observations highlight glowing dust, showing where it exists around and between stars – appearing in shades of red and orange. Stars that haven’t yet fully formed and are encased in gas and dust appear bright red.

A stunning new set of images from the James Webb Space Telescope illustrates the variety of forms that exist within spiral galaxies like our Milky Way. The collection of 19 images shows a selection of spiral galaxies seen from face-on in the near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths, highlighting the similarities and differences that exist across these majestic celestial objects.

“Webb’s new images are extraordinary,” said Janice Lee of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in a statement. “They’re mind-blowing even for researchers who have studied these same galaxies for decades. Bubbles and filaments are resolved down to the smallest scales ever observed, and tell a story about the star formation cycle.”

Read more