James Webb reveals the Orion Nebula as you’ve never seen it before

15 Sep 2022

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/PDRs4All ERS Team/S Fuenmayor

The new image shows bright stars and a ‘stellar embryo’ lurking within the heart of the gigantic stellar nursery.

The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its gaze to the Orion Nebula, revealing “breathtaking” new details of its inner regions.

The gigantic stellar nursery is one of the most studied objects in space, thanks to its massive size – spanning 24 light years across – and its close proximity to Earth. Roughly 1,300 light years away, the Orion Nebula can sometimes be seen with the naked eye from Earth.

Now, researchers have captured the most detailed images of the gigantic nebula to date.

The stunning image above is a composite, which comes from several filters that represents emission from ionised gas, hydrocarbons, molecular gas, dust and scattered starlight. The star that steals the spotlight is Orionis A, which is just bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from a dark location on Earth.

The new images were targeted by an international collaboration, which included researchers from Western University in Canada.

“We are blown away by the breathtaking images of the Orion Nebula,” Western University astrophysicist Els Peeters said. “We started this project in 2017, so we have been waiting more than five years to get these data.”

An image of a part of the Orion Nebula, showing bright stars and gasses. Certain parts of the image are zoomed in to highlight unique parts, such as specific stars or filaments. Taken from the James Webb Space Telescope.

A range of specific details visible within the Orion Nebula. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/PDRs4All ERS Team/S Fuenmayor

The image above is rich in filaments of different sizes and shapes, while a young star with discs of gas and dust is visible to the top right. A ‘stellar embryo’ can also be seen, which is expected to gradually grow until it can start nuclear fusion and begin shining bright.

“These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the gas and dust cloud in which they are born,” Peeters said.

The heart of stellar nurseries such as the Orion Nebula can be obscured by large amounts of stardust, which makes it impossible to study what is happening inside.

But Webb’s powerful instruments detect the infrared light of the cosmos, which allows observers to see through these layers of dust and get a deeper glimpse within the Orion Nebula.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, but that doesn’t mean Hubble is out for the count. The older space observatory is still delivering amazing images of the cosmos.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a “celestial cloudscape” on the outskirts of the Orion Nebula, around 1,000 light years from Earth.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic