Truth behind the James Webb photo of a question mark in space

Scientists spotted the shape of a question mark hidden in a deep-space image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Look closely: there's a question mark in space
Deutsche Welle

They couldn't have been more emphatic: "This is not a hoax," the European Space Agency told DW when we asked. But can you blame us for checking?

This ‘question mark’ that's been spotted by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) 1,470 light years from our planet has got to be the most meme-like chance finding since the spacecraft launched on 25 December, 2021.

It was hidden in a high-resolution image of "a tightly bound pair of actively forming stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47 […]," the European Space Agency explained.

"Look for them at the center of the red diffraction spikes. The stars are buried deeply, appearing as an orange-white splotch."

But far below those red diffraction spikes, and then a bit to the right, you can clearly see it, which is undoubtedly a question mark.

The truth behind the question mark: perspectives?

What makes this finding so uncanny is that it's not a matter of interpreting shapes and imaging things, as you do when you imagine faces or animals in the clouds. There is no mistaking: it's a question mark, all right.

"I'm not an astronomer, but [given] the prospect of either an intelligent and super-advanced alien life form manipulating galaxies to create ... characters, or two or three galaxies simply colliding and happening to look like a '?,' I'd suggest the latter seems far more likely," said this author's go-to space expert, Malcolm Macdonald, a professor of spacecraft engineering at Strathclyde University, UK.

The mystery is somewhat magnified by the fact that this find has indeed been an observation that has grown and spread on social and other media.

Galaxies colliding make recognisable shapes

Neither the American Space Agency NASA, ESA nor the Canadian Space Agency appeared to make a big deal out of the appearance of a question mark in space. Their main focus when capturing this particular image was to observe the formation of stars.

But when asked, ESA's head of science communication Kai Noeske said the question mark "looks like a group or a chance alignment of two or three galaxies; the upper part of the question mark looks like a distorted spiral galaxy, maybe merging with a second galaxy."

And despite Macdonald's own perspective being more aligned with satellites, it seems that the colliding galaxies theory is as close as to the truth as we'll get for now. 

"Galaxies do collide a lot, so it's plausible that when we start to look closely enough at all these different collisions, we'll see one that looks like a familiar shape when viewed from our particular perspective."

After the original publication of this article on 10 August, we were delighted when Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, got back to us with further confirmation:

"Not a hoax. Perfectly reasonable shape for a pair of galaxies […]. One is being torn apart ('tidally disrupted') by the gravity of another galaxy it's passing, and that makes the curved part of the question mark. The 'dot' part of the [question] mark is a normal round galaxy that happens to be nearly in the same direction," said McDowell.

In its less-than-two-years' operation (so far), the JWST has delivered some of the most stunning images of space and helped researchers better understand some amazing space phenomena. No doubt it will get to the bottom of the question mark mystery very soon.