Photos: NASA's James Webb captures the Tarantula Nebula in crisp detail
Out in the universe, a story of creation unfolds. Thousands of never-seen-before young stars in a Nebula called 30 Doradus had images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the agency announced Tuesday.
The form of the Nebula in the past had earned it the nickname the Tarantula Nebula, due to its long filaments of gas and dust radiating from its central ring, called a crater, reminiscent of spider legs. The 30 Doradus has long been a known Nebula and has been a go-to favorite of astronomers studying young star formations. Webb also reveals background galaxies, as well as detailed images of the nebula’s dust and gas structure and composition.
The Tarantula Nebula, as far as proximity goes, is only a mere 161,000 light years away located within the Large Magellanic galaxy. That galaxy is the largest and brightest star-forming region in the Local Group, the name given to a collection of galaxies that are closest to our Milky Way.
The Magellanic Cloud galaxy is known to have the hottest and most massive stars studied so far by humanity. Astronomers focused three of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments on the Tarantula Nebula. When viewed with the NIRCam, the (Near-Infrared Camera) the Tarantula analogy is correct, showing a region similar to a burrowing Tarantula’s home, with silky web lining the structure. The nebula’s cavity has been hollowed out by the blistering radiation of massive young stars clustered together. In the NIRCam images the stars sparkle with the palest of blue colors.
Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) caught an emerging star, being released from the pillar of radiation and the bubble cocoon of dust, they form in. Scientists had thought it was an older star, but the NIRSpec revealed a much younger formation, just emerging from its pillar.
The entire region appears different in Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). A reverse image emerges of cooler gas and dust glowing brighter than the hot stars, which fade. Within the nebula’s mass are, a nursery of young stars, the points of light are embedded protostars gaining mass.
The Tarantula Nebula is interesting to astronomers because it resembles the universe’s central star-forming region, known as the Cosmic Noon. Where it is thought stars first formed in the universe. The chemical composition is similar in the Tarantula Nebula, as in the gigantic star-forming region.
Our own Milky Way does not produce stars of the same chemical composition and furious rate that the Tarantula Nebula does. This makes the Tarantula Nebula the closest, or easiest to see in detail, an example of what was happening in the universe when it reached its brilliant cosmic noon. Webb provides an opportunity to contrast and compare observations on star formation within the Tarantula Nebula. This is accomplished with the telescope’s deep observations of distant galaxies from the actual era of cosmic noon.
In spite of the thousands of years of stargazing, the formation of stars is still mostly mysterious. Many of those mysteries were due in a large part to not being able to get images of the process in crisp detail. What was happening within the clouds of gas and dust of these stellar nurseries, was mostly hidden from our astronomers. Webb is already revealing a universe that has never been seen before and is only getting started in this stellar story of creation.
Professor Gretchen Benedix is an astrogeologist and cosmic mineralogist who studies meteorites and figures the forming stages of the solar system.