The James Webb Space Telescope has peered through the clouds of the Orion Nebula to spot stars blazing as they heat the area around them and blast apart molecules
12 September 2022
If you look closely at the constellation Orion, you will see that the star at the centre of the figure’s sword isn’t a star at all. It is the Orion Nebula, Earth’s nearest massive star-forming region. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has peeked deep into the heart of the nebula to reveal how massive stars affect the areas in which they were born.
This image shows 1/800th of the visible extent of the nebula, which has a mass about 2000 times that of the sun and contains hundreds of young, hot stars. It was taken as part of an observing programme led by Olivier Berné at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in France.
This programme is designed specifically to study how stars heat the gas and dust around them. The process occurs most intensely in areas called photodissociation regions, named for the process by which intense starlight breaks apart the molecules surrounding the stars.
The picture above shows one such region, in which the bright stars at the bottom right have heated and dissociated the material around them, leaving the clouds at the upper left, which are just distant enough to escape the most powerful radiation. Understanding this process in detail is key to studying interstellar matter in our galaxy because it is made up of the remnants and leavings of star-forming regions like the Orion Nebula.
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