James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse publishes the magnificent first images of the Orion Nebula

James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse publishes the magnificent first images of the Orion Nebula

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Toulouse researchers from the IRAP (Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology) are associated with the revealing of the first images of the Orion Nebula by the new James Webb Space Telescope. A spectacular dive into the closest star nursery in the Solar System.

Launched on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope observes the Universe with incredibly capable eyes. Olivier Berné, an astrophysicist at IRAP, the Toulouse Research Institute for Astrophysics and Planetology, coordinates a research team that uses the first data provided by the instrument. He has just received the first observations of the Orion Nebula, the closest stellar nursery, 1,350 light-years away. This area was chosen to understand how stars and planetary systems form.

The first images of the Orion Nebula by the James Webb Telescope look incredible. What is your look?

We uncover our observations but by immediately going into detail and comparing with images previously taken by the Hubble telescope. Of course it is similar but very different. The work obtained with the observations of the James Webb telescope allows to have more contrast, details and depth, now we can see the three dimensions of the Orion nebula.

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Why this difference?

Thanks to observation in infrared light, young stars can be seen very well. In Hubble images of the Orion Nebula, unseen stars abound. There we have the impression of discovering unknown objects… Let’s check if they are in the Hubble catalog established in the 1990s. Infrared observation is very difficult to do from the ground, the spectrometer must be efficient and also requires a high angular resolution, the James Webb telescope meets these conditions.

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by both the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right).
© NASA/ESA/CSA/PDRs4All ERS Team/Salomé Fuenmayor/Olivier Berné

The modified image also shows what you call filaments. What is it about ?

These filament structures are probably created by the turbulent motions of gas within the nebula. The newborn stars cause winds and the interaction of this wind creates dynamic effects, a bit like ripples on the surface of water. This turbulence likely has an impact on how stars form, or rather why so few stars form in our galaxy. We are talking about the feedback of massive stars on their surroundings due to a mechanical effect or heating effect.

What work is there behind the image released on Monday?

Work hours! With Amélie Canin, an IRAP engineer, and Ilane Schroetter, an IRAP postdoctoral student, we received the raw data on Sunday, converted it, assembled it, and with the help of a graphic designer we got this colorful composition. All this in less than 24 hours and thanks to several months of preparation.

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Was targeting the Orion Nebula the right choice?

Yes, we are convinced of this, although the James Webb telescope was originally designed to make images of very distant galaxies and not of very luminous regions such as Orion. They even told us that it was not possible and that we were going to saturate everything! In fact, we can watch Orion with James Webb and that will bring something. It is an extremely rich region, it is there where it is necessary to make observations to understand the formation of stars. Half of the observations in our research program were made this weekend, and will continue through early November. We feel privileged to use what some call the telescope of the century, the most powerful instrument ever built by man to observe the sky in its earliest moments.

The core of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope in September 2022.

The core of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope in September 2022.
© NASA/ESA/CSA/PDRs4All ERS Team/Salomé Fuenmayor

These images are great communication tools, but do you also work from other data?

Yes, we have begun to study curves, spectra of planetary systems that form in this nebula. It is less visual but for us it is the most interesting! Thanks to the measurements of spectrometers that break up the light of the observed objects, we have already identified molecules of water, carbon and perhaps other elements whose composition we seek to understand.

At the Toulouse level, the team working on the James Webb Telescope’s “Early Release Science” program is made up of scientists from the Toulouse Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), the Toulouse Institute for Informatics Research (IRIT) and the Chemistry and Quantum Physics Laboratory of Toulouse (LCPQ) with the support of CNES, National Center for Space Studies. At an international level, the project is co-piloted with the IAS (Orsay) and the University of London (Canada).

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