The James Webb Telescope captures the Tarantula Nebula in stunning detail

The Tarantula Nebula has been photographed by several observatories in the past, but new images captured by the James Webb Telescope give us a clearer, sharper look at the star-forming region. Also known as 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula is the largest and brightest star-forming region among galaxies near our own, making it a favorite object for scientists studying star formation.

Astronomers used three of Webb’s infrared instruments to image the Tarantula Nebula. Viewed with Webb’s near-infrared (NIRCam) camera, you can see the silky filaments that give the nebula its name, surrounding a cluster of massive young stars that sparkle blue at the center of the image above. According to NASA, tens of thousands of these young stars have never been seen before because they were obscured by cosmic dust. Stellar winds and radiation from these young stars had eroded the center of the nebula, which will constantly shift and change shape. The filaments surrounding them eventually hide more protostars, and they will emerge to join the other stars at the center while blowing away the gas and dust they are blocking our view.

Indeed, Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph has observed one such star beginning to emerge from behind its dusty veil. NASA says the star’s activity would not have been revealed without Webb’s high-resolution spectra at infrared wavelengths. The astronomers also used Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to view the nebula at longer infrared wavelengths, and captured an image that differed significantly from that of the NIRCam. This time, the young stars at the center of the nebula fade into the background, while the cooler gas and dust surrounding them glow and take the spotlight, as you can see below.

Tarantula Nebula

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO production team

As NASA explains, the Tarantula Nebula is of particular interest to scientists studying star formation because it has a similar chemical composition to the star-forming regions during the “cosmic noon” of the Universe. This is the time when the universe was only a few billion years old and star formation was at its peak. There is no region in our own galaxy that is producing new stars at a similarly rapid pace. Star-forming regions in the Milky Way also have a different composition. With the Webb telescope focused on the Tarantula Nebula, scientists now have images to compare with deep observations of distant galaxies from actual cosmic noon, which could help them better understand the early years of the Universe.

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Russell Falcon

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