NASA's James Webb space telescope was launched in late 2021, and since summer 2022 the space agency's boffins have been releasing the remarkable images of the universe it has taken. These are stunning pictures, the kind that make you realise what ants we all are and question humanity's place in the universe, and one of the latest really makes you question things.
I mean, you've seen it already. That is a zoomed-in fragment from this image taken by the James Webb, and it's a near-perfect cosmic rendering of a question mark. I've got a minor obsession with these images and have had a few framed, even my desktop background is one of them, but I've never seen anything that made me question my spirituality more.
We'll get to the theorising about what this actually might be in a moment, but first: the bad jokes. The reason this hopped out at me wasn't just the astonishing image itself, but the fact that I first saw it thanks to a Reddit thread where most folks' instant reaction was to relate this cosmic occurrence to videogames.
RemarkableToast notes: "Looks like NASA has a quest to turn in." OldJames47 reckons "it's a 10 Billion Lightyear escort quest but the NPC moves at 1% of C." Droideater's eager to get things moving: "Quick, turn that quest in, the XP will be stellar!"
I half-inched this article's headline from Horrus70, who says it's "no big deal. That part of space just hasn't rendered yet" ("literally unplayable" adds popper_wheelie). Then a classic exchange:
FarewellAndroid: "God out here hitting us with that dlc 😔"
Tvscinter: "If god is EA we've lost."
People also made perhaps the most obvious gaming link, to Rocksteady's Arkham series and those infuriating Riddler trophies. "Fuck, now I'll never get 100% completion," says Buule1312, "I mean how tf am I supposed to get out there?"
"Don't worry it's a perspective riddle," says Zealousideal_Brick36, before Drkarcher22 comes up with the correct answer: "Use the remote controlled batarang."
OK, OK, enough gags. Some humorless souls complain about this kind of thing when faced with something of such magnificence but, honestly, what can you do except approach these things with humor? It's a question mark in space! The alternative is to think about how we're burning up our own planet and are so insignificant amidst the slow heat death of the universe, after all.
As for actual answers, over to the experts. "It is probably a distant galaxy, or potentially interacting galaxies (their interactions may have caused the distorted question mark-shape)," said a rep of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which manages JWST's science operations. "Additional follow-up would be required to figure out what it is with any certainty. Webb is showing us many new, distant galaxies—so there's a lot of new science to be done!"
"The two distinct features could easily be merging galaxies in the background, with the upper part of the question mark being part of a larger galaxy getting tidally disrupted," said physics professor Matt Caplan to Space.com. "Given the color of some of the other background galaxies, this doesn't seem like the worst explanation. Despite how chaotic mergers are, double lobed objects with curvy tails extending away from them are very typical."
I kinda can't get over this. I've had the image open in a tab most of the day now, and every time I check back it still seems so unreal, like NASA's punking us with a photoshop or something. I'm worried this thing is going to make me believe in God because, really, it is just an extraordinary thing. Though the reaction I keep going back to, again and again, was articulated by Aggressive_Candy5297"404: "galaxy.png not found."