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

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Toulouse researchers from IRAP (Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology) are associated with the disclosure 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 at IRAP, the Institute for Astrophysics and Planetology Research in Toulouse, is coordinating a research team using the first data provided by the instrument. He has just received the first observations of the Orion Nebula, the nearest star nursery, 1350 light years away. This area was chosen to understand how stars and planetary systems form.

The first images of the Orion Nebula by the James Webb Telescope look incredible. What is your appearance?

We discover our observations, but by immediately going to the details and comparing with the images previously taken by the Hubble telescope. It is of course similar, but very different. The work achieved with the observations of the James Webb telescope allows for more contrast, detail and depth, we can now 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 pictures of the Orion Nebula taken by Hubble, there are lots of invisible stars. There we have the impression of discovering unknown objects… We need to check if they are in the Hubble catalog established in the 1990s. Infrared observation is very difficult to perform from the ground, the spectrometer must be efficient and also requires a 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).
© NASA/ESA/CSA/PDRs4All ERS Team/Salomé Fuenmayor/Olivier Berné

The reworked image also shows what are called filaments. What is it about ?

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

What work is behind the image published on Monday?

Hours of work! Together with Amélie Canin, engineer at IRAP and Ilane Schroetter, post-doctoral student at IRAP, we received the raw data on Sunday, we converted it, assembled it 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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Was aiming for the Orion Nebula the right choice?

Yes, we strongly believe so, although the James Webb Telescope was initially designed to make images of very distant galaxies and not very bright regions like Orion. We were even told that it was not possible and that we had to saturate everything! Actually we can observe Orion with James Webb and that will bring something. It is an extremely rich area, it is there that it is necessary to make observations to understand the formation of stars. Half of the observations of our research program were made over the weekend, they 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 built by man to observe the heavens in their 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 are you also working from other data?

Yes, we have begun to study curves, spectra of planetary systems that form in this nebula. It’s less visual, but for us it’s the most interesting! Thanks to the measurements of the spectrometers, which break down the light from the observed objects, we have already identified 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 for the James Webb telescope consists of researchers 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 support from CNES, National Center for Space Studies. On an international level, the project is co-piloted with IAS (Orsay) and the University of London (Canada).

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