James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse publishes the magnificent first images of the Orion Nebula

James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse publishes the magnificent first images of the Orion Nebula

James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse publishes the magnificent first images of the Orion Nebula

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The Toulouse researchers of IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) are associated with the revelation of the first images of the Orion Nebula by the new James Webb Space Telescope. A spectacular dive into the nearest star nursery in the Solar System.

Launched on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope observes the Universe with incredibly capable eyes. Olivier Berné, astrophysicist of IRAP, the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology of Toulouse, coordinates a research group that uses the first data provided by the instrument. He has just received the first observations of the Orion Nebula, the closest nursery of stars, 1350 light-years away. This area was chosen to understand how stars and planetary systems are formed.

The first images of the Orion Nebula from the James Webb telescope look incredible. What’s your look?

Let’s discover our observations but immediately going into detail and comparing ourselves with the images previously taken by the Hubble telescope. Obviously it is similar but very different. The work obtained with the observations of the James Webb telescope allows for more contrast, detail and depth, now we can see the three dimensions of the Orion nebula.

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Why this difference?

Thanks to the observation in infrared light, young stars can be seen very well. In the images of the Orion Nebula taken by Hubble, there are many invisible stars. There one gets the impression of discovering unknown objects … Let’s check if they are in the Hubble catalog established in the 90s. Infrared observation is very difficult to do from the ground, the spectrometer must be efficient and also requires an ad high angular resolution, the James Webb telescope fulfills these conditions.

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by both the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right).

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by both the Hubble Space Telescope (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope (right).
© NASA / ESA / CSA / PDRs4All ERS Team / Salomé Fuenmayor / Olivier Berné

The reworked image also shows what you call filaments. What is it about?

These filament structures are likely created by the turbulent movements of gas within the nebula. Newborn stars cause winds, and the interaction of this wind creates dynamic effects, a bit like ripples on the surface of the water. This turbulence likely has an impact on how stars form, or rather why so few stars form in our galaxy. We are talking about the feedback of massive stars on their environment by mechanical effect or by heating effect.

What work is behind the image released on Monday?

Work hours! With Amélie Canin, engineer at IRAP and Ilane Schroetter, postdoctoral doctor at IRAP, on Sunday we received the raw data, we converted it, assembled it and with the help of a graphic we obtained this colorful composition. All this in less than 24 hours and thanks to several months of preparation.

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Was aiming for the Orion Nebula the right choice?

Yes, we are convinced of it, even if at the beginning the James Webb telescope was designed to make images of galaxies very far away and not for very bright regions like Orion. We were also told that it was not possible and that we would saturate everything! Indeed, we can observe Orion with James Webb and that will bring something. It is an extremely rich region, it is there that observations need to be made to understand the formation of stars. Half of our research program observations were made this weekend and will continue until early November. We feel privileged to use what some call the telescope of the century, the most powerful instrument ever built by man to observe the sky in its first moments.

The core of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope in September 2022.

The core of the Orion Nebula as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope in September 2022.
© NASA / ESA / CSA / PDRs4All ERS Team / Salomé Fuenmayor

These images are great communication tools, but do you work on other data as well?

Yes, we have begun to study the curves, the spectra of the planetary systems that form in this nebula. It is less visual but for us it is the most interesting! Thanks to the measurements of the spectrometers that break down the light of the observed objects, we have already identified molecules of water, carbon and perhaps other elements whose composition we are trying to understand.

At the Toulouse level, the team working on the James Webb Telescope “Early Release Science” program is made up of scientists from the Toulouse Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP), the Toulouse Computer Research Institute (IRIT) and the Laboratory of Quantum Chemistry and Physics of Toulouse (LCPQ) with the support of CNES, National Center for Space Studies. Internationally, the project is co-piloted with the IAS (Orsay) and the University of London (Canada).

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