Astronomers released a new image of the Orion Nebula from the James Webb Space Telescope on Monday.
Webb’s infrared cameras captured star-forming clouds and a gas cocoon 1,350 light-years away.
Astronomers hope the new observations will help them understand how stars form.
New images from the James Webb Space Telescope released Monday captured the most detailed and sharpest images ever made of the Orion Nebula.
“We are overwhelmed by the stunning images of the Orion Nebula. We started this project in 2017, so we’ve been waiting more than five years to get this data,” Els Peeters, a Western University astrophysicist who helped lead the observations, said in a press release.
“These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the cloud of gas and dust in which they are born,” Peeters added.
The new images were released early and are now being studied by an international collaboration of more than 100 scientists in 18 countries as part of a program called PDRs4All.
The Orion Nebula is a massive star-forming region 1,350 light-years from Earth, making it the closest star-forming region to us. Dense clouds of cosmic dust in the nebula obscure star-forming structures from instruments that rely on visible light, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. By collecting infrared light, Webb is able to see through these layers of dust, giving astronomers unprecedented views of the nebula’s various components.
Below, take a look at structures Webb revealed that were previously shrouded in dust.
Astronomers believe nebulae are clouds dominated by giant, tangled, thread-like structures called filaments, which feed material like gas to form and fuel stars. Webb’s images show these gaseous filaments in great detail.
“We clearly see multiple dense filaments. These filament structures could support a new generation of stars in the lower regions of the dust and gas cloud,” said Olivier Berné, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research who was involved in the observations, “says it in a press release.
However, the exact role of the filaments in star formation remains unclear. The researchers hope the new observations will help them glean details about how they fuel the birth and growth of young stars.
Young, newly forming stars nestle in dense cocoons of cold gas and dust that are difficult to see in visible light. However, Webb is so sensitive to infrared light that it could detect the warmth of a bumblebee on Earth even from a distance from the moon.
In the new images, Webb was able to capture a star forming in a cocoon of gas that is not visible in Hubble’s images of the nebula.
“We hope to gain an understanding of the full cycle of star birth,” Edwin Bergin, a University of Michigan professor who was part of the research team, said in a press release.
“In this image, we’re looking at this cycle where the first generation of stars is essentially irradiating matter for the next generation. The incredible structures we are observing will detail how the star birth feedback cycle works in our galaxy and beyond,” Bergin said.
The Orion Nebula is home to a huge group of stars called the Trapezium Cluster. This group of young stars emits intense ultraviolet radiation that shapes the surrounding cloud of dust and gas.
While Hubble is able to capture visible and ultraviolet radiation effects, Webb’s infrared image shows a clearer view of how intense starlight and the cluster’s radiation blast the neighboring region, leaving a cavity on the right. Clouds remain on the left, far enough away to escape the strongest radiation.
“We have never been able to see the intricate fine details of the structure of interstellar matter in these environments and figure out how planetary systems can form in the presence of this harsh radiation,” said Emilie Habart, associate professor at the Institut d’ Astrophysique Spatiale in France, according to a press release.
The Orion Nebula resembles the environment in which our solar system was born, Habart added, so studying it could be key to understanding our solar system.
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