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Is That a Question Mark?

A recent image from space seems to show a question mark. But it’s not a message from aliens.

A galaxy with an inset showing something in the shape of a question mark.

© NASA, ESA, CSA, J. DePasquale (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope captured this image, which includes what looks like a question mark.

The James Webb Space Telescope has given us some amazing images, and a few surprises. When some sharp-eyed people noticed what looked like a question mark in the background of a recent Webb image, it raised some, well, questions. Is there something in space that’s shaped like a question mark? Could this be a message from aliens? Scientists have answers.

What looks like a question mark is actually two or more galaxies that are in the process of merging, or coming together. Galaxies merge quite often, scientists say. In fact, between 10 and 25 percent of galaxies are merging at any given time. Our own Milky Way galaxy is the product of a merger.

“Many people think of galaxies like these little islands in space that don’t move, but nothing in the universe can be pinned down,” Matt Caplan, an assistant professor of physics at Illinois State University, told CBS News. “Stars move as they orbit the galaxy, and the galaxy—being made of gas and stars—moves whatever direction the gravity of nearby galaxies pulls it. The same is true of our Sun and Milky Way.”

Nora Luetzgendorf of the European Space Agency believes that the arc of the question mark might be a tidal tail, a shape that forms due to the gravitational interaction between two galaxies. The dot might be another, smaller galaxy.

While galaxies merge quite often, we don’t often get to see it happen—which makes this question mark special, even if it’s not a message from aliens.

Macarena Garcia Marin is a Webb project scientist with the Space Telescope Science Institute, which manages the telescope’s science operations. “I think we all enjoy finding familiar shapes in the sky; that creates a deep connection between our human-experience and language in this case (a question mark!) and the beauty of the Universe surrounding us,” Garcia Marin told National Public Radio. “To me it brings the question of how many other interesting objects are out there waiting to be explored with Webb!”

Fun Fact

© Twentieth Century Fox, NASA/NPL/Space Science Institute; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Many space objects look a lot like objects that humans invented. Mimas, which is one of Saturn’s moons (shown in the photo), resembles the Death Star from the Star Wars movies!

Why Aren’t Asteroids Round?

An asteroid in space

ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Asteroids aren’t massive enough to be round.

Why are planets round, while asteroids aren’t? A space object’s shape has to do with its mass and the effect of gravity.

Think of the planets, which are all spherical. This is because the gravitational force of a planet’s mass pulls all its material toward the center, resulting in a sphere.

Smaller objects have less mass, so their gravity is not enough to smooth out their shape. Asteroids, for example, may look like potatoes or like pieces of gum that have been chewed. In other words, they take on weird, irregular shapes. Gravity doesn’t affect an asteroid’s shape, but other things can. For example, sometimes two asteroids collide and stick together. If you imagine two lumps of clay being smashed together, you’ll get a sense of why this might result in an odd shape!

One in a Billion?

NASA, ESA, CSA, and J. Lee (NOIRLab); image processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

Did you know there are billions of galaxies in the universe? How big are galaxies, and when were they formed? You can find the answers to these questions and more at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

elliptical

PART OF SPEECH:

adjective

Definition:

: shaped like a flattened circle

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