The James-Webb Telescope Captures Orion’s Star Nursery

The James-Webb Telescope Captures Orion's Star Nursery

This time, its giant mirror, 6.5 meters in diameter, turned towards the Orion Nebula: the James-Webb Space Telescope of the US, European and Canadian agencies continues to dazzle astronomers and the public with the images it sends from its post observation station located more than 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

On September 12, the PDRs4All program, co-directed by the French Olivier Berné (from the Astrophysics and Planetology Research Institute, Toulouse) and Emilie Habart (from the Space Astrophysics Institute, Paris-Saclay) and the Belgian Els Peeters (from the University of Western Ontario, Canada) has published never-before-seen details of Orion, the closest star nursery to us in our galaxy, some 1,350 light-years from Earth.

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In this region, stars are born within the many filaments that structure the image and that move according to the stellar winds. The brown structure that sweeps the image and evokes the flight of an eagle with its “head” made of a bright star, is a front of matter made up of gas and dust. This area is on the border between a bluish side, where ultraviolet radiation from the star cluster in the center of the nebula ionizes hydrogen and pushes matter out, and a region of dust, hydrocarbon molecules that are resistant to radiation ( rather in green on the image).

“Balloons” and white spots

Circled in red, the star that forms the eagle’s head appears to create its own nebula around itself, pushing matter to the periphery. “This glow, probably due to the diffusion of light on the dust, evokes that of certain sunsets”says Olivier Berné.

The nebula as seen by Hubble (left) and James-Webb (right).
The nebula as seen by Spitzer (left) and James-Webb (right).

The team of astronomers also immediately noticed zooming in on countless “globules”small white spots in the nebula, in the shape of a jellyfish, Venetian mask, head, etc., which are protoplanetary disks, or “proplyds”, that is, an accumulation of matter around a young star, site of the appearance of future planets . “The dimensions are only ten astronomical units, the size of our solar system. James-Webb had never seen one before.”testifies Olivier Berné, a specialist in these regions, similar to those that our own solar system was at its birth.

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“We are satisfied. The details of the image give an incomparable three-dimensional view », appreciates Emilie Habart. The differences with the Hubble space telescope (which observes in the visible) or Spitzer (in the infrared) are certainly eloquent. James-Webb “sees” through the dust and locates stars that have been hidden from Hubble until now. He also sees ten times sharper than Spitzer, allowing small objects such as protoplanetary disks or filaments of matter to be studied in detail.

cascades of matter

A second “bonus” image was also featured, showing an area a few light-years further north than the previous one. The same dynamical phenomena are observed in this type of cascade of matter: cold hydrocarbonaceous matter (in green), heated hydrogen gas (in blue), and, in red, probably hot dust. Stars more or less young depending on their color also light up the stage.

Northern region of M42, the Great Nebula in Orion, as seen with Detector A on NIRCam, the infrared camera on the James-Webb Space Telescope.

These false-color images, taken by the NIRCam instrument, James-Webb’s infrared camera, were produced by graphic designer Salomé Fuenmayor, who assembled fourteen telescope shots taken in various infrared filters, therefore invisible to the naked eye. The colors correspond to the radiation of different compounds, but it is too early to accurately associate a color with specific chemical elements such as hydrogen, molecular hydrogen, hydrocarbons, dust…

To do this, astronomers are waiting to receive and study other data from the same region, the exact composition, for almost every pixel in the image, of the light emitted at each wavelength (or color). This information is the only one that will make it possible to accurately identify the light sources, their composition, their temperature, their evolution… This will be the key to understanding the mysterious interaction of stellar radiation with the surrounding matter, but also the formation of new generations of stars, stars, or even the carbon cycle (with molecules heating up, decaying, cooling down, etc.). In the line of sight, the writing of complete scenarios for the appearance of planetary systems like ours.

Also read: A first image of an exoplanet released by the James-Webb telescope, “a turning point for astronomy”

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