The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) has once again demonstrated its incredible capabilities by capturing the most detailed and sharpest images ever of the inner region of the Orion Nebula. Located in the constellation of Orion, this stellar nursery is about 1,350 light-years from Earth.
Researchers from Western University in Ontario, Canada, were part of an international collaboration aimed at the newly released images.
These images were obtained on JWST as part of the Early Release Science program Photodissociation Regions for All (PDRs4All ID 1288). Co-led by Peeters, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) Olivier Bern and Associate Professor Emilie Habart from the Institut dAstrophysique Spatiale (IAS), PDRs4All is an international collaboration involving a team of more than a hundred scientists in 18 countries is involved. Other Western University astrophysicists involved in PDRs4All include Jan Cami, Ameek Sidhu, Ryan Chown, Bethany Schefter, Sofia Pasquini and Baria Kahn.
These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars alter the cloud of gas and dust in which they are born, Peeters said. She is a professor of astronomy at Western University and a faculty member at the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.
Massive young stars emit large amounts of ultraviolet radiation directly into the native cloud that still surrounds them, altering the cloud’s physical shape and chemical composition. Exactly how this works and how it affects further star and planet formation is not yet known.
The newly released images reveal numerous spectacular features within the nebula, up to magnitudes comparable to the size of the Solar System.
We clearly see several dense filaments. These filamentary structures could nurture a new generation of stars in the lower regions of the dust and gas cloud. Star systems that are already in formation are also showing up, Bern said. In its cocoon, young stars are observed in the nebula with a disk of dust and gas in which planets are forming. Small cavities dug by new stars blasted by the intense radiation and stellar winds of newborn stars are also clearly visible.
Proplyds, or ionized protoplanetary disks, consist of a central protostar surrounded by a dust and gas disk in which planets are forming. Scattered across the images are multiple protostellar jets, outflows, and nascent stars embedded in dust.
We have never been able to see the intricate 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 legacy of the interstellar medium in planetary systems, Habart said.
The Orion Nebula has long been considered an environment resembling the cradle of the solar system (when it formed more than 4.5 billion years ago). That is why today scientists are interested in observing the Orion Nebula. They hope to use analogies to understand what happened in the first million years of our planetary evolution.
Because the hearts of stellar nurseries like the Orion Nebula are obscured by large amounts of stardust, it’s impossible to study what’s going on inside them in visible light with telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope. Webb detects infrared light from the cosmos, allowing astronomers to see through these layers of dust and reveal what’s happening deep inside the nebula.
Observing the Orion Nebula was challenging because it is very bright for Webb’s unprecedentedly sensitive instruments. But Webb is incredible, Webb can observe distant and faint galaxies, as well as Jupiter and Orion, which are some of the brightest sources in the infrared sky, Bern said.
At the heart of the Orion Nebula is the Trapezium Cluster (also known as Theta Orionis), discovered by Galileo. It contains young massive stars whose intense ultraviolet radiation shapes the cloud of dust and gas. Understanding how this intense radiation affects its surroundings is a key question in understanding the formation of star systems like our own solar system.
Seeing these first images of the Orion Nebula is just the beginning. The PDRs4All team is hard at work analyzing the Orion data, and we await new discoveries about these early stages of star system formation, Habart said. We’re excited to be part of Webb’s journey of discovery.
Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built in human history. Developed in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), it features an iconic 6.5 meter wide mirror composed of a honeycomb pattern of 18 hexagonal gold-coated mirror segments and a five-layer diamond-shaped sunshade the size of a tennis court. As a partner, CSA will receive a guaranteed share of Webbs’ observing time, allowing Canadian scientists to be among the first to examine data collected by the most advanced space telescope ever.
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