New James Webb Space Telescope image shows a secluded galaxy in stellar detail

The lonely dwarf galaxy could teach scientists about the early eras of our own Milky Way.
The WLM galaxy
A portion of the dwarf galaxy Wolf–Lundmark–Melotte (WLM) captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (right). SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, IPAC, Kristen McQuinn (RU) IMAGE PROCESSING: Zolt G. Levay (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

In the vastness of space, galaxies can get a little isolated. That’s the case for a dwarf galaxy called Wolf–Lundmark–Melotte (WLM), which is one-tenth the size of our home Milky Way galaxy and pretty close by space standards at 3 million light years away. According to NASA, WLM can be seen in the constellation Cetus.

Lonesome or not, WLM is ready for its close-up. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took an incredibly detailed image of WLM using its near-infrared spotting tech to reveal a deep glimpse into the stars of the galaxy. The images were released to the public on November 9 and the data from this image could help astronomers study the early days of the universe since WLM’s seclusion has helped it maintain a chemical make-up that is similar to those of the galaxies in the early universe.

[Related: The James Webb Space Telescope’s first image shows the universe in a new light.]

“We think WLM hasn’t interacted with other systems, which makes it really nice for testing our theories of galaxy formation and evolution,” Kristen McQuinn of Rutgers University, one of the lead scientists on Webb Early Release Science (ERS) program 1334, said in a NASA blog post. “Many of the other nearby galaxies are intertwined and entangled with the Milky Way, which makes them harder to study.”

The Early Release Science programs were designed to highlight JWST’s capabilities and help astronomers prepare for future observations.

The WLM galaxy has also been imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope and the now-decommissioned Spitzer Space Telescope, but JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captured the galaxy in stunning detail.

“We can see a myriad of individual stars of different colors, sizes, temperatures, ages, and stages of evolution; interesting clouds of nebular gas within the galaxy; foreground stars with Webb’s diffraction spikes; and background galaxies with neat features like tidal tails,” McQuinn added. “And, of course, the view is far deeper and better than our eyes could possibly see. Even if you were looking out from a planet in the middle of this galaxy, and even if you could see infrared light, you would need bionic eyes to be able to see what Webb sees.”

[Related: X-ray vision adds a whole new layer to James Webb Space Telescope images.]

With this new data, that still has to undergo peer review, astronomers are looking to reconstruct the star formation history of the WLM galaxy. Since low-mass stars can live for billions of years, some of the stars that are present in WLM likely formed during the early universe.

“By determining the properties of these low-mass stars (like their ages), we can gain insight into what was happening in the very distant past,” said McQuinn. “It’s very complementary to what we learn about the early formation of galaxies by looking at high-redshift systems, where we see the galaxies as they existed when they first formed.

JWST was launched into space on December 25, 2021 and is a joint effort by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Canadian Space Agency (CSA). It is the universe’s most powerful space observatory and can detect the faint light of incredibly distant galaxies that are invisible to the human eye.