“Majestic” images of a stellar nursery in the Orion Nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope reveal intricate details about the formation of stars and planetary systems.
The images, released Monday, shed light on an environment similar to that of our own solar system when it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. Observing the Orion nebula will help space scientists better understand what happened during the first million years of the Milky Way’s planetary evolution, the Western University astrophysicist Els Peeters said in a press release.
“We are amazed by the majestic images of the Orion Nebula. We started this project in 2017, so we have been waiting more than five years to get this data,” said Peeters.
“These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the cloud of gas and dust in which they are born,” added Peeters.
The hearts of stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula are obscured by large amounts of stardust, making it impossible to study what’s going on inside them with instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, which rely primarily on visible light.
Webb, however, detects infrared light from the cosmos, allowing observers to see through these layers of dust, revealing action going on inside the Orion Nebula, according to the release. The images are the most detailed and sharp ever taken of the nebula, which is located in the constellation Orion, 1,350 light-years from Earth, and the latest offering from the Webb telescope, which began operations in July.
“Observing the Orion Nebula was challenging because it’s too bright for Webb’s unprecedentedly sensitive instruments. But Webb is amazing, Webb can look at faint, distant galaxies, as well as Jupiter and Orion, which are some of the brightest sources on Earth. the infrared sky,” said research scientist Olivier Berné at the CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research, in the press release.
The new images reveal numerous structures within the nebula, including the thrusters, a central protostar surrounded by a disk of dust and gas in which planets form.
“We have never been able to look at the intricate and fine details of how interstellar matter is structured in these environments, and 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,” he says. Emilie Habart, associate professor at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France.
Also clearly visible at the heart of the Orion Nebula is the trapezoidal cluster of young massive stars that shape the cloud of dust and gas with their intense ultraviolet radiation, according to the press release. Understanding how this radiation impacts the cluster environment is key to understanding the formation of star systems.
“Massive young stars emit large amounts of ultraviolet radiation directly into the native cloud that still surrounds them, and this changes the physical shape of the cloud as well as its chemical composition. It is not yet known exactly how this works and how it affects the subsequent star and planet formation,” Peeters said.
The images will be studied by an international collaboration of more than 100 scientists from 18 countries known as PDRs4All.