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Webb telescope snaps some of its largest images, and they’re majestic

Ancient Mayan culture referred to the Orion Nebula as the cosmic fire of creation.

Contemporary scientists see that enormous cloud of gas and dust in space in a somewhat similar way. The vast baby star nursery, south of Orion’s belt, is about 1,350 light-years away, making it the closest large star-forming region to Earth. Because of its proximity, it’s a prime target for astronomers to study the births of stellar objects.

Within the nebula, aka Messier 42, are protostars (precursors to stars), brown dwarfs (failed stars too small to generate their own nuclear power), and rogue planets (worlds that wander through space unhitched to a host star).

Now with the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists are able to see this important celestial site with unparalleled resolution. The telescope, a partnership of NASA and the Canadian and European space agencies, reveals the cosmos in infrared, a form of light that isn’t visible to human eyes. The data, translated into colors people can see, offer a plethora of new insight.

Researchers have released new wide-angle views of the Orion Nebula that could enrich our understanding of star evolution. Two images are some of the largest mosaics from Webb so far. The new Webb data have uncovered hundreds of free-floating worlds in the nebula, not orbiting stars, the smallest of which are two times the mass of Saturn, according to ESA.

A European Space Agency tool known as ESA Sky allows users to zoom in and explore the details. Some 2,400 individual images were combined to make the full short-wavelength color composite view, and 712 individual images were combined to obtain the long-wavelength one, according to ESA.

Webb studying Orion Nebula
In this short wavelength mosaic image, Webb focuses on the nebula and its stars.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA

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In this long wavelength composite image, Webb focuses on the gas, dust, and molecules in the region.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA

At the center of the nebula are four massive stars collectively known as the Trapezium because they are arranged in a trapezoidal shape.

Webb astronomers looking at the Orion Nebula recently detected a curious carbon molecule in a young star system, known as d203-506. Organic chemists say the molecule, methyl cation, assists with the formation of more complex carbon-based molecules, acting like a train station where a molecule can remain for a time before routing to one of many different directions to react with other molecules.

The discovery was published in the journal Nature in June.


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