James Webb Telescope: a team from Toulouse has published the first beautiful images of the Orion Nebula

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Toulouse researchers from the IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) are involved in revealing the first images of the Orion Nebula with the new James Webb space telescope. An incredible dive into the closest star nursery in the Solar System.

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

The first images of the Orion Nebula by the James Webb Telescope look amazing. What do you look like?

We discovered our observations but only by going into detail and comparing images taken previously by the Hubble telescope. It is of course similar but very different. The work obtained with the observations of the James Webb telescope allows to have more contrast, details and depth, we can now see the three dimensions of the Orion nebula.

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Why this difference?

Thanks to the observation of infrared light, young stars are very visible. In the images of the Orion Nebula taken by Hubble, there are many invisible stars. There, we have the impression of discovering unknown objects … We will check if they are in the Hubble catalog established in 1990. Infrared observation is very difficult to do from the ground, the spectrometer must be efficient and also needs a high angular resolution, the James Webb telescope meets these conditions.

The inner region of the Orion Nebula as seen by 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 movement of gas within the nebula. Newly born stars cause winds and the interaction of these winds creates dynamic effects, which look like ripples on the surface of water. This disturbance may have an effect on the way stars are formed, or why so few stars are formed in our galaxy. We are talking about the feedback of massive stars to their surroundings through mechanical effects or heating effects.

What was the work behind the image released on Monday?

Hours of work! With Amélie Canin, engineer at IRAP and Ilane Schroetter, post-doctoral student at IRAP, we received the raw data on Sunday, we converted them, compiled them and with the help of a graphic designer we got this colorful composition . All this in less than 24 hours and thanks to several months of preparation.

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Is aiming for the Orion Nebula the right choice?

Yes, we are convinced of this, even though initially the James Webb telescope was designed to make images of distant galaxies and not for very bright regions like Orion. We were even told that it couldn’t be done and that we would fill it all up! In fact, we can observe Orion with James Webb and that will bring something. This is a very rich region, it is necessary to make observations to understand the formation of stars. Half of the observations in our research program were made this weekend, it will continue until the beginning of November. We feel privileged to use what some call the telescope of the century, the most powerful instrument ever created by man to observe the heavens in its earliest 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 are you also working from other data?

Yes, we started to study the curves, spectra of the planetary systems formed in this nebula. It doesn’t look like much but for us it’s the most interesting! Thanks to the measurements of spectrometers that break up the light of the observed objects, we now know the molecules of water, carbon and perhaps other elements whose composition we seek to understand.

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

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