The Orion Nebula is one of the most studied celestial regions. Located in the constellation Orion (or the Hunter), among the stars, the nebula is so bright that it can be seen with the naked eye. At its core, the Orion Nebula is a huge complex cloud that creates and forms stars. That is why it is also known as the Orion Complex Molecular Cloud.
Given that it is quite close to Earth, located 1,344 light-years away, the Orion Nebula is one of the most important observational targets for understanding star formation. Mankind has been looking at the Orion Nebula since its discovery in 1610, but we still haven’t discovered all its secrets.
Now, the most powerful space telescope ever built has given us a new view from the very heart of the Orion Nebula.
The new images obtained by the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam instrument are, as astronomers said, the most detailed and clearest yet. The analyzes are still ongoing, but we will soon learn something new and fascinating about this incredible region of the galaxy.
“We are absolutely blown away by the images of the Orion Nebula”
“We are absolutely blown away by the stunning images of the Orion Nebula. We started this project in 2017, so we have been waiting for more than five years to get this data,” said astrophysicist Els Peeters from Canada Western University.
“These new observations will allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the clouds of gas and dust in which they are born. Young massive stars emit huge 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,” added Peeters.
Star formation, a gaseous and dusty process
Star formation is a gaseous and dusty process. Stars are born from thick clouds of dust and gas that collapse under gravity and begin accreting material from the surrounding cloud, thus forming a disk as the star rotates.
The nature of this process means it is very difficult to observe, with light being blocked by dust and gas, so we can’t see what’s going on there, according to Science Alert.
However, infrared wavelengths of light, the way Webb observes the Universe, are able to pass through dust, allowing us to see into regions impossible to see in shorter wavelengths, such as the visible spectrum.
Scientists eager to use the Webb Telescope
So scientists have been looking forward to using the Webb Telescope to study star formation and learn new details about the process.
Webb’s new images focus on a structure called the Orion Bar, which runs diagonally from upper left to lower right. Light from a young, hot star cluster called the Trapezium cluster illuminates the scene in the upper right corner. However, this harsh ultraviolet light erodes the structure.
“We have never been able to see the fine details of interstellar matter structured in these environments and understand how planetary systems can form in the presence of this strong radiation. These images reveal the legacy of the interstellar medium in planetary systems,” said Emilie Habart, astronomer at the Institute of Space Astrophysics at the Université Paris-Saclay.