Webb Telescope Exposes Hidden Star-Forming Clouds, Gas Cocoons in Orion Nebula, Beyond Hubble’s Gaze

New James Webb Space Telescope images, released Monday, captured the most detailed and sharpest images ever taken of the Orion Nebula.

“We are blown away by the breathtaking images of the Orion Nebula. We started this project in 2017, so we have been waiting more than five years to get these 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 gas and dust cloud in which they are born,” Peeters added.

The new images were released early and will now be studied by an international collaboration of more than 100 scientists in 18 countries, as part of a program known as PDRs4All.

The Orion Nebula is a massive star-forming region 1,350 light-years from Earth, making it the nearest stellar nursery to us. Dense clouds of cosmic dust in the nebula obscure star-forming structures from instruments that rely on visible light, like the Hubble Space Telescope. By gathering infrared light, Webb is able to peer through those layers of dust, giving astronomers unprecedented views of the nebula’s various components.

Below, take a glimpse at structures Webb revealed that were previously enshrouded in dust.

Webb spots previously hidden star-forming threads

Astronomers believe nebula are clouds dominated by vast, tangled, thread-like structures, called filaments, which feed material like gas to form and fuel stars. Webb’s images reveal these gaseous threads in great detail.

“We clearly see several dense filaments. These filamentary structures may promote a new generation of stars in the deeper regions of the cloud of dust and gas,” Olivier Berné, a research scientist French National Centre for Scientific Research, who was part of the observations, said in a press release.

Still, the exact role of filaments in star formation remains unclear. Researchers hope the new observations will help them tease out details about how they foster the birth and growth of infant stars.

Webb’s camera captures baby stars nestled inside a cocoon of gas

Young, newly-forming stars nestle inside dense cocoons of cold gas and dust, which are difficult to see in visible light. Webb, however, is so sensitive to infrared light it would be able to detect the heat of a bumblebee on Earth from as far away as the moon.

In the new images, Webb was able to capture a star forming inside a cocoon of gas, which isn’t visible in Hubble’s images of the nebula.

“We hope to gain understanding about the entire 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 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,” Bergin said.

Webb offers sharper views of radiation from a massive star cluster at the nebula’s heart 

The Orion Nebula is home to a massive group of stars called the Trapezium Cluster. This group of young stars emits intense ultraviolet radiation, shaping the surrounding cloud of dust and gas.

While Hubble is able to capture radiation’s effects in visible and ultraviolet light, Webb’s infrared image showcases a sharper view of how the cluster’s intense starlight and radiation blasts the neighboring region, leaving behind a cavity to the right. To the left, clouds distant enough to escape the most powerful radiation remain.

“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,” Emilie Habart, an associate professor at Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France, said in a press release.

The Orion Nebula is similar to the environment our solar system was born in, Habart added, so studying it could be key to understanding our solar system.


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