The Great Orion Nebula (cataloged by Messier as M42) is the closest to us, 1,344 light-years away, the star forming region (stellar nursery) and the brightest diffusion nebula in the sky. It is easily visible to the naked eye even from the suburbs of large cities. For this reason, it is also an extremely popular object observed by lovers of the night sky.
A lot of details of the most famous nebula of the Orion constellation are shown by small amateur telescopes. In the slightly larger ones, the picture delights even the more experienced sky watchers. The M42 looks even better in the photos. Now scientists have shown what results can be achieved with the James Webb Space Telescope.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Data reduction and analysis: PDRs4All ERS Team; graphical processing S. Fuenmayor / https://pdrs4all.org/
The new image from the Webb telescope impresses with its detail
Photo of it result Webb’s team collaboration with researchers from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, and presents a small fragment of the inner part of the Orion Nebula. They were recorded in near infrared using Webb’s NIRCam instrument (it is a combination of several frames made with the use of different filters). The photo may not be the most spectacular photo of this object, but it will surprise you with the enormous amount of detail visible in the center of the M42.
Across the center of the photo there is a strongly scratched, longitudinal cloud of dust illuminated by the light of nearby stars. Researchers called it the Orion Bar. In the lower right corner, you can even see the subtle ripples in the structure of the cloud, which is largely composed of hydrogen. Two bright stars are also visible just below Orion’s bar. The first (θ2 Orionis A) is visible to the naked eye under very dark skies. The second star is very young and is located inside the so-called globula, a dark nebula that partially blocks its light.
The interior of the Great Nebula in Orion as seen from the Webb telescope photo: NASA, ESA, CSA, Data reduction and analysis: PDRs4All ERS Team; graphical processing S. Fuenmayor & O. Berné
Above the bar, we have huge dust structures and gas forming the inner part of the M42 nebula. In the upper right corner of the frame, the researchers even found a very young star still surrounded by a protoplanetary disk (planets form there). To show how much magnification and level of detail we are dealing with, the box shows the approximate size of Neptune’s orbit. It is the most distant planet in the Solar System, orbiting the Sun about 30 times farther than the Earth.
Webb or Hubble? The difference is gigantic
Lastly, the scientists were also tempted to compare the image of the same fragment of the Great Nebula in Orion taken now by telescope James Webb with a photo that was previously obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope. It is hard not to admit that the detail of the Webb photo completely distances the image obtained from the earlier Hubble.
Comparison of images from Webb and Hubble – Great Nebula in Orion photo Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, PDRs4All ERS Team; image processing Olivier Berné. Credit for the HST image: NASA / STScI / Rice Univ./C.O’Dell et al.
The Webb telescope observes in infrared (light penetrates more easily through gas and dust clouds), and therefore it extracts starlight much better. The photo from the new observatory is also dominated by light from hot, ionized gas, and it highlights much more the presence of cooler molecular material that forms the aforementioned so-called Orion’s bar.