Zoom in on a stunning new image from the James Webb Space Telescope and you might be in for a little surprise.
There, in the background of spectacular star birth lurks a curlicue and blob of light in the shape of an English punctuation mark: the question mark.
It’s unclear exactly what the object is, but it’s relatively far away; generally speaking, the redder an object appears in a field image, the greater its distance. This is because the accelerating expansion of the Universe stretches light as it travels towards us, lengthening it into the redder parts of the spectrum.
The two blobs appear to be roughly the same color, raising the intriguing possibility that they could be two distant galaxies interacting. This is a phenomenon that we see a fair bit in the Universe, and the gravitational interplay can pull such galaxies into interesting, elongated shapes.
Arp 23 looks a bit like a rose.
Arp-Madore 2026-424 looks like a spooky skull.
They’re not those things, of course; they just appear to be due to a quirk of human perception known as pareidolia, in which we see patterns and meaning in random arrangements of elements.
We don’t often see something that looks quite so neatly like a punctuation mark, but up close the cosmic question mark might look very different. We may just have the perfect combination of distance and perspective to make the two objects look like something that’s meaningful to us.
If the Universe were to have a mascot, though, we’d nominate the cosmic question mark. Has there ever been another object that so beautifully sums up our boundless curiosity for the boundless realms above?
You can download the full-sized image to ponder the nature of everything from the ESA Webb website.