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James Webb Space Telescope: Western University connection to new images

The James Webb (Webb) Space Telescope has captured spectacular images of a stellar nursery at the heart of the Orion Nebula, and the project has a very special connection to Western University in London, Ontario.

According to a press release from Western UniversityWebb captured the sharpest images yet of the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery in the constellation Orion, located 1,350 light-years from Earth.

The images were released on Monday as part of the Early Release Science PDRs4All program — an international collaboration involving more than 100 scientists in 18 countries. The project is led in part by Olivier Berné, researcher at the CNRS, and Emilie Habart, associate professor at the Institute of Space Astrophysics (IAS).

Also included in this partnership are astrophysicists from Western University.

The project is co-led by Western astrophysicist Els Peeters and includes astrophysicists Jan Cami, Ameek Sidhu, Ryan Chown, Bethany Schefter, Sofia Pasquini and Baria Kahn.

“These new observations allow us to better understand how massive stars transform the cloud of gas and dust in which they were born,” said Peeters, professor of Western astronomy and faculty member of the Institute for Exploration of Earth and space in the release.

The new images reveal huge structures inside the nebula, down to scales comparable to the size of the solar system. The new images reveal what happens inside these cosmic cradles, where baby stars are born.

The photos reveal the interior of a cocoon containing young stars surrounded by a disk of dust and gas, from which planets form – of particular interest to scientists today.

Our own solar system is 4.5 billion years old, so observations like that of the Orion Nebula can give scientists a glimpse of what the first million years of planetary evolution looked like.

A young star with a disk inside its cocoon is seen in this image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope and released on September 12, 2022. A planet forming disks of gas and dust is seen around a young star , and these discs dissipate due to the strong radiation field of nearby stars, creating a cocoon of dust and gas around them. Nearly 180 of these externally illuminated disks around young stars have been discovered in the Orion Nebula, and HST-10 (the one in the image) is one of the largest known. Neptune’s orbit is shown for comparison. (Source: Western University)

“We have never been able to see the intricate details of how interstellar matter is structured in these environments, and understand how planetary systems can form in the presence of this aggressive radiation. These images reveal the legacy of the interstellar medium in planetary systems,” Habart said.

“We clearly see multiple dense filaments,” Berné added. “These filamentous structures could foster a new generation of stars in the deeper regions of the dust and gas cloud. Star systems already forming also appear.

Photographing the interior of stellar nurseries such as the Orion Nebula in visible light with Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, is normally impossible due to obstruction by stellar dust and gas.

Because Webb captures images in the infrared, scientists can look through layers of cosmic gas and dust and into the hearts of these stellar structures, normally hidden in visible light.

“We are blown away by the breathtaking images of the Orion Nebula. We started this project in 2017, so we waited over five years to get these observations,” Peeters said.

Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built. The telescope had been in development for 20 years and was officially launched into space in December 2021.

The telescope was developed in tandem by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). As a partner, the CSA receives a share of Webb’s observing time, allowing select Canadian scientists to be the first to study the data collected by the most powerful telescope ever built.

“Seeing these first images of the Orion Nebula only marks the beginning of our excitement. The PDRs4All team is hard at work analyzing the data from Orion and we await new discoveries about these early phases of star system formation,” Habart said. “We are thrilled to be part of Webb’s journey of discovery.”

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