Caught in a Webb: New images reveal cosmic tarantula

7 Sep 2022

A mosaic image stretching 340 light years across the Tarantula Nebula, captured by Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

The new images shed light on the composition of the Tarantula Nebula and reveal protostars still gaining mass within the stellar nursery.

Thousands of never-before-seen young stars in a nearby nebula have been captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The powerful space observatory turned its various instruments towards a stellar nursery called 30 Doradus, nicknamed the Tarantula Nebula for the appearance of its dusty filaments in previous images.

At a distance of 161,000 light years from Earth, this nebula is home to some of the hottest and largest known stars.

It is the biggest star-forming region in the Local Group – the galaxies nearest to our Milky Way – and has long been a favourite for astronomers studying star formation.

Three of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments were focused on the Tarantula Nebula, revealing details about its dust and shining a new light on the star-forming region.

Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) image shows a cavity in the centre. This has been hollowed out by blistering radiation from a cluster of massive young stars, which appear blue in the image.

The dense areas of dust around this cavity form pillars that appear to point back toward the cluster. The European Space Agency (ESA) said these pillars contain forming protostars, which will eventually emerge and help shape the nebula further.

The nebula has a new reason to be compared to a spider, as it resembles a burrowing tarantula’s home lined with silk in the new image.

But the region takes on a different appearance when viewed from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). The hot stars fade, and the cooler gas and dust glow. Within the clouds of this stellar nursery, points of light are visible – which are protostars, still gaining mass.

An image of the Tarantula Nebula, with dust and stars visible in the image. Taken from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Tarantula Nebula viewed from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

The ESA said the Tarantula Nebula is interesting to astronomers because its chemical composition is similar to the gigantic star-forming regions observed at the universe’s “cosmic noon”.

This is a period when the cosmos was only a few billion years old and star formation was at its peak. This makes the Tarantula Nebula the closest example of what was happening in the universe during this time period.

The new images from the James Webb Space Telescope will let astronomers compare the observations of star formation in the Tarantula Nebula with the telescope’s deep observations of distant galaxies from the “cosmic noon” era.

As the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s mission is to solve mysteries in the solar system, look to distant worlds around other stars and probe the origins of our universe. Launched last December, it has already released a series of stunning images.

Recently, a team scientists, musicians and a member of the blind and visually impaired community worked together to adapt Webb’s images into unique soundscapes.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic