The gorgeous image was compiled by astronomer Professor Gabriel Brammer of the University of Copenhagen from data made publicly available by NASA scientists.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) observed Messier 74 on July 17, 2022.
Prof. Branner posted his image on Twitter, with the caption: “Let’s just see what JWST observed yesterday… Oh, good god.”
The twisting, energetic filaments resemble some of the appearances of the time vortex — the dimensional plane through which the TARDIS time travels in “Doctor Who” — perhaps most notably as depicted in the second half of Matt Smith’s final full season.
While Prof. Branner’s image appears in shades of purple–pink, this is not actually a true reflection of what NASA’s space telescope saw — and is in fact a composite of three monochromatic images taken by the MIRI instrument at 7.7, 10 and 11 micrometre wavelengths.
The astronomer explained: “A note while you’re enjoying the spectacular colour JWST images that the human eye is essentially blind to every photon JWST instruments detect.
“So there is no ‘true’ colour version of any of these JWST images in the sense that they are as you would perceive them with 6.5 metre (21 feet) -diameter eyeballs.
“Perhaps with a slight exception at red wavelengths around 700 nanometres at the edge of human perception and where JWST is less efficient and only about as sensitive as the much smaller Hubble telescope.”
The striking filamentary structures visible in the composite, he explained, “are emissions from interstellar dust and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules.”
Prof Branner added they appear purple as the emissions from this “interstellar cigarette smoke” make the blue and red channels brighter relative to the green.
A galaxy of some 100 billion stars that lies some 32 million light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Pisces, Messier 74 has two prominent and well-defined spiral arms.
This structure — not to mention the fact that it is oriented as to appear “face-on” to viewers on Earth — makes it the perfect example of a so-called “grand design” spiral galaxy, one that is a common target of astronomers studying spiral arm structures and spiral density waves.
Messier 74 was first discovered in 1780 by the French astronomer Pierre Méchain, who communicated the find with his colleague and countryman Charles Messier, who added the galaxy to his eponymous Messier catalogue of 110 nebulae and star clusters.
Despite having created the most famous list of astronomical objects, Messier was only really interested in finding comets — he created the catalogue to make note of those other objects he felt were frustrating his hunt for them!
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The “Phantom Galaxy” gets its nickname from the fact that its low surface brightness makes it the most difficult of the 110 Messier objects for amateur astronomers to observe.
Funnily enough, if Messier 74 resembles the time vortex as viewed through the lenses of the James Webb Space Telescope, previous observations using the visible spectrum bring to mind the grand design spiral galaxy that appears prominently in the Doctor Who title sequence from the 1987–89 Sylvester McCoy-era, starting with “Time and the Rani”.
This intro — the first ever full CGI television title sequence — cost a whopping £20,000 to produce (£62,500 in today’s money) and six weeks to produce
It is said that some individual frames even took whole days to render.
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This isn’t the first time, however, images from NASA’s brand-new James Webb Space Telescope have looked like something out of the “whoniverse”.
In fact, last week, fans joked that the first JWST image released by NASA looked eerily similar to the version of the starfield title sequence used during the tenure of Colin Baker’s Doctor, from 1984’s “The Twin Dilemma” through to 1986’s “The Trial of a Time Lord”.
On Twitter, the official Doctor Who account (@bbcdoctorwho) quipped: “We’ve seen this one before…”
As it happens, however, the stunning NASA image actually depicts faint galaxies in the direction of the constellation of Volans — as they appeared a whopping 13.5 billion years ago — only 0.3 billion years after the universe first formed.