James Webb Space Telescope captures Orion Nebula with 'breathtaking' details

Hubble walked so that JWST could run.
Deena Theresa
The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument.
The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument.

NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS Team; image processing Salomé Fuenmayor 

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured the most detailed and painstakingly sharp images ever taken of the inner region of the Orion Nebula, known as the "picture book of star formation." The stellar nursery is situated in the constellation Orion, 1,350 light-years away from Earth.

The images were obtained as part of the Early Release Science program and involved more than 100 scientists in 18 countries, in a collaboration called PDRs4All, according to a release. The team, which comprised institutions including the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Western University in Canada, and the University of Michigan, started the project in 2017 and waited for five long years to get the data.

The result?

A template image of the cosmic formation's center that is leaving astronomers "blown away."

Els Peeters, an astronomer and professor at Western University in London, Ontario, who is one of the principal investigators for the PDRs4AlI, told CBC News that she's thrilled by the image.

"It's just the amazing detail, how sharp the images are, all this filamentary structure," she said.

James Webb Space Telescope captures Orion Nebula with 'breathtaking' details
Planet forming disks of gas and dust around a young star.

The latest images reveal many spectacular structures, down to scales of about 40 astronomical units, or about the size of our solar system. A release by the University of Michigan states that these structures include several dense filaments of matter, which may launch the birth of a new generation of stars. The image also reveals forming stellar systems that consist of a central proto-star surrounded by a disc of dust and gas inside which planets form.

"These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the gas and dust cloud in which they are born," Peeters said in a statement by Western University.

NASA had previously described the landscape of the dust and gas nebula as plateaus, mountains, and valleys reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.

JWST penetrated through the infrared light of the cosmos

Scientists are interested in observing the Orion Nebula to better understand what happened during the first million years of our planetary evolution.

The nebula was previously photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, but the device uses visible light, which cannot penetrate through the massive amounts of stardust that obscures the heart of the nebula. In comparison, JWST detects the infrared light of the cosmos, inviting observers to see through layers of dust and peek into its cosmic center.

James Webb Space Telescope captures Orion Nebula with 'breathtaking' details
The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by both the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right).

"In this image, we are looking at this cycle where the first generation of stars is essentially irradiating the material for the next generation. The incredible structures we observe will detail how the feedback cycle of stellar birth occurs in our galaxy and beyond," said Edwin (Ted) Bergin, U-M professor and chair of astronomy and member of the international research team.

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The dense filaments seen in the images may promote a new generation of stars in the deeper regions of the cloud and dust, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) scientist Olivier Berné said. Stellar systems that are mid-formation show up as well. "Inside its cocoon, young stars with a disk of dust and gas in which planets form are observed in the nebula. Small cavities dug by new stars being blown by the intense radiation and stellar winds of newborn stars are also clearly visible," said Berné.

James Webb Space Telescope captures Orion Nebula with 'breathtaking' details
The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by both the Spitzer Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right).

Key to understanding the formation of stellar systems

The images also comprise several protostellar jets, outflows, and nascent stars embedded in the dust.

"We have never been able to see the intricate fine details of how interstellar matter is structured in these environments and to figure out how planetary systems can form in the presence of this harsh radiation. These images reveal the heritage of the interstellar medium in planetary systems," Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale associate professor Emilie Habart said.

It was by no means an easy task.

James Webb Space Telescope captures Orion Nebula with 'breathtaking' details
Northern region of M42 observed with detector A of NIRCam during observation of the Orion Bar.

"Observing the Orion Nebula was a challenge because it is very bright for Webb’s unprecedented sensitive instruments. But Webb is incredible; Webb can observe distant and faint galaxies, as well as Jupiter and Orion, which are some of the brightest sources in the infrared sky," said Berné.

A 'trapezium cluster' of young massive stars whose intense ultraviolet radiation shapes the cloud of dust and gas lies at the heart of the Orion Nebula. Comprehending how this intense radiation impacts their surroundings is a crucial question in understanding the formation of stellar systems like our own solar system.

"Seeing these first images of the Orion Nebula is just the beginning. The PDRs4All team is working hard to analyze the Orion data and we expect new discoveries about these early phases of the formation of stellar systems," said Habart. "We are excited to be part of Webb’s journey of discoveries."

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