The James Webb Telescope shows a “question mark” in deep space. What is the mysterious phenomenon?

James Webb Telescope Take another amazing photo From space, but that figure stood out — because there seemed to be a mysterious question mark figure floating among the stars. the picture It quickly went viral this week, as social media users wondered if it was a sign of aliens. So what is the question mark?

Matt Kaplan, an associate professor of physics at Illinois State University who holds a Ph.D. on the subject, told CBS News that seeing a distinct shape in space is not uncommon. “You might be surprised how often things in space look like recognizable shapes,” he said via email. “There are only so many simple shapes, and our brains are very good at recognizing patterns, even when a pattern is meaningless.”

He said the brain’s tendency to perceive a pattern is called pareidolia. “It’s the same reason you can see all kinds of interesting things when you look at clouds, or ‘hear’ strange words when you listen to a song backwards,” he said. “The lower the fidelity and the more blurred the stimulus, the greater the human brain’s tendency to fill in the blank.”

While the shape looks like a question mark to the human brain, it is not actually a question mark.

Space Telescope Science Institute

So, our brains interpret the shape as a question mark. One theory as to why the question mark appears in space, Kaplan said, is that the telescope has caught galaxy mergers, which is another common occurrence.

He said that up to 10% to 25% of galaxies may be merging together at any given time.

“Many people think of galaxies as these little islands in space that don’t move, but nothing in the universe can be determined,” he said. “The stars move as they orbit the galaxy, and the galaxy — made up of gas and stars — moves in whatever direction the gravity of nearby galaxies pulls. The same is true of our Sun and the Milky Way, for the record.”

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured a high-resolution image of a pair of tightly forming stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, in near-infrared light.

Space Telescope Science Institute

Galaxies are bombarded with stars and gas tidal tails when they merge together. Tidal tails are long streams of stars that can appear curved. So, the curved shape that made the question mark could be a tidal tail.

Image taken with a telescope, Released last month, Kaplan explained that Herbig-Haro 46/47 is a star-forming cloud. On a telescope, stars look like objects with six points. This is why Question Mark isn’t just another star – it’s unlike the rest.

Macarena Garcia Marín, Webb’s project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, told CBS News that she thinks galaxy mergers are the most likely explanation. “Looking at the image in detail, you can see two bright points that could be the nuclei of galaxies, and the rest of the structure will be the tidal result of the interaction process. Additional data will be needed to further understand the nature of the galaxies’ structure,” Marin told CBS News by mail. mail.

Kaplan said the picture is The highest image resolution from HH 46/47 to date and can teach scientists more about the star-forming cloud. “About the question mark? That’s just a fun curiosity. This whole story is the equivalent of the astronomy ‘local guy finds chicken nuggets in the shape of George Washington,'” he said.

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