Image of the Tarantula Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope captures the Tarantula Nebula in all its glory

The James Webb Space Telescope captured this beautiful image of a nebula called 30 Doradus. It is also referred to as the Tarantula Nebula because of the dust filaments that are prominent in previous telescope images of the nebula.

This stellar nursery has been a popular target for astronomers studying star formation, and this Webb image reveals it in exquisite detail. In addition to distant background galaxies, Webb also captured the detailed structure and composition of the nebula’s gas and dust.

The Tarantula Nebula is nearly 161,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy and is one of the largest and brightest star-forming regions in the Local Group (the closest galaxy to our own.) It also hosts some of the hottest and most massive stars we know. To learn more about the incredibly hot birthplace of stars, astronomers focused three of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments on it.

When viewed with the telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the area looks like the home of the silk-lined Tarantula spider. The cavity at the center of the nebula is hollowed out by intense radiation from a cluster of massive young stars, which can be seen sparkling blue in the image. Strong stellar winds erode all but the densest surrounding regions of the nebula, creating columns that appear to point toward the cluster. These “pillars” contain the forming protostars that will eventually emerge and contribute to the formation of the nebula.

Image of the Tarantula Nebula captured by JWSTAn image of the Tarantula Nebula captured by JWST’s MIRI. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

The same region has a completely different appearance when viewed in the longer infrared wavelengths detected by the Webb Telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). In the MIRI image, hot stars fade as cooler gas and dust appear to glow. The bright spots in this image show nested protostars that are still accreting mass. Dust grains in a nebula absorb or scatter shorter wavelengths of light. But longer mid-infrared wavelengths penetrate the dust and reveal a completely different cosmic landscape.

Star formation in our universe was at its peak during a period called the “cosmic noon,” when the universe was only a few billion years old. The Tarantula Nebula has a similar chemical composition to the vast regions of star formation observed during this cosmic noon, which is an important reason why astronomers are so interested in the nebula.

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