These new images of the Orion Nebula, “like in 3D”

These new images of the Orion Nebula, “like in 3D”

These new images of the Orion Nebula, “like in 3D”

In one of the offices of the Research Institute of Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse, since last weekend, we have been racing on coffee. Since observing data from the James Webb Telescope (JWST) on Sunday and the publication of the first images of the Orion Nebula on Monday evening, a small team has worked hard to reveal to the general public a new “view” of the richest and largest stellar nursery. close up of the solar system. A much cleaner version than the one previously provided by Hubble.

And it was no small feat, because when the first data arrived, it looked more like a white dot on a blurry black background than a drawing board. But 24 hours of treatment – and months of preparation – made it possible to obtain this increasingly surprising result. “We started with the raw data from the telescope, which we pre-processed to have black and white images of the different filters that we then assembled, then a graphic designer made a colored composition,” he explains. Olivier BernéCNRS researcher at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology of Toulouse (IRAP).

The Orion Nebula taken by Hubble (left) and Jawes Webb (right)
The Orion Nebula photographed by Hubble (left) and Jawes Webb (right) – NASA

This gives a more detailed and clearer view of what is happening 1,350 light years from Earth, in an environment similar to where our system was born over 4.5 billion years ago.

The role of the “breath” of the stars

“When we receive these images, we immediately look at the details and see the differences with the images of the past, especially those from Hubble. We see that there are more contrasts and depths. We can see the three dimensions of the nebula. We see these stars that light up, these young stars that are tens, hundreds of thousands of years old and that we haven’t seen with Hubble, ”continues the astrophysicist.

Thus appear in the eyes of the general public, structures in filaments, like sponges, which are certainly linked to the interaction of the wind of the stars with the cloud. “We have stars that illuminate the nebula but also cause winds, a whiff of their entire environment. And the interaction of this breath with the cloud creates these kinds of structures. A bit like when the wind blows on the surface of the water, it creates wrinkles. And that definitely has an impact on how a star forms, or doesn’t form, ”says the man responsible for one of the 14 priority science projects on the JWST telescope.

A question at the center of many works by astrophysicists around the world. Because in a galaxy, where there is a lot of matter and interstellar clouds, only two or three stars are formed per year. What prevents the stars from seeing the light of day?

Detected water molecules and carbon monoxide

There are several avenues being studied, which these new images could enrich. Or are they mechanical reasons, like the breath of the stars that disturbs the clouds. Or for heating effects. Much closer than the Carene or Tarantula nebulae, again in James Webb’s viewfinder, the Orion nebula will allow you to see the small stars in formation more clearly. Or what in the image captured by the telescope looks like a globule, where in the center there is a star, and this disk that surrounds it, which is nothing more than a planetary system in formation where the details appear.

Details of the Orion Nebula taken by the James Webb telescope.
Details of the Orion Nebula taken by the James Webb telescope. -IRAP / NASA

“With James Webb, we can see the spectra of these forming planetary systems and their composition. Thanks to a spectrometer, which breaks down the light emitted by the objects in the nebula, we can see which molecules are present and, later, we will see where they can come from ”, reveals Olivier Berné. He can already say that they have definitely detected water molecules, carbon monoxide, and what could be carbon oxysulfide.

And it is far from over, due to the 40 hours of observation that the Toulouse team enjoyed for its research project, only three for the images and nine for the spectrometer were devoted to these images. There is still a lot of data to exploit and new things to learn about this fabulous Orion nebula.

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