NASA’s Webb telescope captured in crisp detail a stellar nursery known as the Tarantula Nebula, revealing previously unseen features that deepen scientific understanding, the agency announced Tuesday.
The region of space, officially known as 30 Doradus, is distinguished by dusty filaments that resemble the legs of a hairy spider and has long been a favourite of astronomers interested in star formation.
Webb’s high resolution infrared instruments revealed thousands of young stars, distant background galaxies, and the detailed structure of the nebula’s gas and dust structures for the first time.
Webb primarily works in the infrared spectrum because light from distant galaxies has been stretched into this wavelength over the course of the universe’s expansion.
The cavity in the centre of the nebula was hollowed out by radiation carried on stellar winds emanating from a cluster of massive young stars, which appear as pale blue dots in the telescope’s primary imager.
Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), which analyses light patterns to determine the composition of objects, captured one young star as it shed a cloud of dust around itself.
The same star was previously thought to be further along in its formation, well on its way to clearing its dusty bubble.
The Mid-infrared Instrument (MIRI) was also used to image the region, which uses longer wavelengths of infrared to pierce through dust grains that absorb or scatter shorter wavelengths.
This faded the hot stars and clarified the cooler regions, revealing previously unseen points of light within the stellar nursery, indicating protostars still gaining mass.
The Tarantula Nebula’s chemical composition is similar to that of massive star-forming regions observed a few billion years after the Big Bang, a period known as the “cosmic noon” when star formation peaked.
Tarantula, at only 161,000 light-years away, is a visible example of this thriving period of cosmic creation.
Webb should also allow scientists to look at distant galaxies from the actual era of cosmic noon and compare them to Tarantula observations to understand similarities and differences.
Webb, which has been in operation since July, is the most powerful space telescope ever built, and astronomers believe it will usher in a new era of discovery.