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First of its kind detection made in striking new Webb image: alignment of bipolar jets confirms star formation theories in Serpens Nebula

For the first time, a phenomenon astronomers have long hoped to image directly has been captured by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam). In this stunning image of the Serpens Nebula, the discovery lies in the northern area of this young, nearby star-forming region.

A rectangular image with black vertical rectangles at the bottom left and top right that indicate missing data. A young star-forming region is filled with wispy orange, red, and blue layers of gas and dust. The upper left corner of the image is filled with mostly orange dust, and within that orange dust are several small red plumes of gas that extend from the top left to the bottom right, at the same angle. The centre of the image is filled with mostly blue gas. At the centre, there is one particularly bright star that has an hourglass shadow above and below it. To the right of that is what looks like a vertical eye-shaped crevice with a bright star at the centre. The gas to the right of the crevice is a darker orange.
In this image of the Serpens Nebula from the Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) on the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers found a grouping of aligned protostellar outflows within one small region (the top left corner). In the Webb image, these jets are identified by bright red clumpy streaks, which are shockwaves caused when the jet hits the surrounding gas and dust.
The Serpens Nebula, located 1 300 light-years from Earth, is home to a particularly dense cluster of newly forming stars (around 100 000 years old), some of which will eventually grow to the mass of our Sun.
This region has been home to other coincidental discoveries, including the flapping ‘Bat Shadow’, which earned its name when 2020 data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope revealed it to flap, or shift. This feature is visible at the centre of the Webb image.
To the right of the ‘Bat Shadow’ lies another intriguing feature—an eye-shaped crevice, which appears as if a star is bursting through. However, astronomers say looks may be deceiving here. This could just be where gases of different densities are layered on top of one another, similar to what is seen in the famous Pillars of Creation.
And to the right of that, an extremely dark patch could be a similar occurrence. The gas and dust here are so dense in comparison to the rest of the region that no near-infrared light is getting through.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, K. Pontoppidan (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), J. Green (Space Telescope Science Institute)

The astronomers found an intriguing group of protostellar outflows, formed when jets of gas spewing from newborn stars collide with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. Typically these objects have a variety of orientations within one region. Here, however, they are all slanted in the same direction, to the same degree, like sleet pouring down during a storm.

The discovery of these aligned objects, made possible only by Webb’s exquisite spatial resolution and sensitivity at near-infrared wavelengths, is providing information about the fundamentals of how stars are born.

So just how does the alignment of the stellar jets relate to the rotation of the star? As an interstellar gas cloud collapses in on itself to form a star, it spins more rapidly. The only way for the gas to continue moving inward is for some of the spin (known as angular momentum) to be removed. A disc of material forms around the young star to transport material down, like a whirlpool around a drain. The swirling magnetic fields in the inner disc launch some of the material into twin jets that shoot outward in opposite directions, perpendicular to the disc of material.

In the Webb image, these jets are identified by bright red clumpy streaks, which are shockwaves caused when the jet hits the surrounding gas and dust. Here, the red colour indicates the presence of molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Webb can image these extremely young stars and their outflows, which were previously obstructed at optical wavelengths.

Astronomers say there are a few forces that potentially can shift the direction of the outflows during this period of a young star’s life. One way is when binary stars spin around each other and wobble in orientation, twisting the direction of the outflows over time.

Stars of the Serpens Nebula

A young star-forming region is filled with wispy orange, red, and blue layers of gas and dust. The upper left corner of the image is filled with mostly orange dust and within that orange dust are several small red plumes of gas that extend from the top left to the bottom right, at the same angle. The centre of the image is filled with mostly blue gas. At the centre, there is one particularly bright star that has an hourglass shadow above and below it. To the right of that is what looks like a vertical eye-shaped crevice with a bright star at the centre. The gas to the right of the crevice is a darker orange.
This image shows the centre of the Serpens Nebula as seen by the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam).
The Serpens Nebula, located 1300 light-years from Earth, is home to a particularly dense cluster of newly forming stars (about 100 000 years old), some of which will eventually grow to the mass of our Sun. Webb’s image of this nebula revealed a grouping of aligned protostellar outflows (seen in the top left). These jets are identified by bright clumpy streaks that appear red, which are shock waves caused when the jet hits the surrounding gas and dust.
Throughout this image filaments and wisps of different hues represent reflected starlight from still-forming protostars within the cloud. In some areas, there is dust in front of that reflection, which appears here in an orange, diffuse shade.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, K. Pontoppidan (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), J. Green (Space Telescope Science Institute)

The Serpens Nebula is only one or two million years old, which is very young in cosmic terms. It’s also home to a particularly dense cluster of newly forming stars (around 100 000 years old) at the centre of this image, some of which will eventually grow to the mass of our Sun.

Serpens is a reflection nebula, which means it’s a cloud of gas and dust that does not create its own light but instead shines by reflecting the light from stars close to or within the nebula.

So, throughout the region in this image, filaments and wisps of different hues represent reflected starlight from still-forming protostars within the cloud. In some areas there is dust in front of that reflection, which appears here in an orange, diffuse shade.

A portion of the young star-forming region known as the Serpens Nebula. It’s filled with wispy orange and red layers of gas and dust and within that orange dust are several small red plumes of gas that extend from the top left to the bottom right, at the same angle. There are wispy blue filaments of gas in the bottom right corner of the image. Small points of light are sprinkled across the field; the brightest sources in the field have the eight-pointed diffraction spikes that are characteristic of the James Webb Space Telescope.
This image from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope shows a portion of the Serpens Nebula, where astronomers have discovered a grouping of aligned protostellar outflows. These jets are signified by bright clumpy streaks that appear red, which are shock waves from the jet hitting surrounding gas and dust. Here, the red colour represents the presence of molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
Typically these objects have a variety of orientations within one region. Here, however, they are all slanted in the same direction, to the same degree, like sleet pouring down during a storm. Researchers say the discovery of these aligned objects, made possible only by Webb’s exquisite spatial resolution and sensitivity at near-infrared wavelengths, is providing information about the fundamentals of how stars are born.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, K. Pontoppidan (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), J. Green (Space Telescope Science Institute)

This region has been home to other coincidental discoveries, including the flapping ‘Bat Shadow’, which earned its name when 2020 data from the NASA/ESAHubble Space Space Telescope revealed it to flap, or shift. This feature is visible at the centre of the Webb image.

Future studies

The stunning image and the serendipitous discovery of the aligned objects are actually just the first step in this scientific programme. The team will now use Webb’s NIRSpec (Near-InfraRed Spectrograph) to investigate the chemical make-up of the cloud.

Astronomers are interested in determining how volatile chemicals survive star and planet formation. Volatiles are compounds that sublimate, or transition from a solid directly to a gas, at a relatively low temperature — including water and carbon monoxide. They’ll then compare their findings to the amounts found in protoplanetary discs of similar-type stars.

These observations were made as part of the Webb General Observer programme 1611 (PI: K. Pontoppidan). The team’s initial results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

At the centre of the image is a nebula against the black background of space. A young star-forming region is filled with wispy orange, red, and blue layers of gas and dust. The upper left corner of the image is filled with mostly orange dust, and within that orange dust, there are several small red plumes of gas that extend from the top left to the bottom right, at the same angle. The centre of the image is filled with mostly blue gas. Small points of light are sprinkled across the field; the brightest sources in the field have the eight-pointed diffraction spikes characteristic of Webb images. At lower left, a white arrow pointing in the 8 o’clock direction is labelled N for north, while an arrow pointing in the 5 o‘clock direction is labelled E for east. At top right, a scale bar is labelled .25 light-years. At the bottom is a list of NIRCam filters in different colours, from left to right: F140M (blue), F210M (cyan), F360W (orange), F480M (red).
This image of the Serpens Nebula, captured by Webb’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), shows compass arrows, a scale bar and a colour key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to the direction of arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above).
The scale bar is labelled in light-years, which is the distance that light travels in one Earth-year. One light-year is equal to about 9.46 trillion kilometres, or 5.88 trillion miles.
This image shows invisible near-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which NIRCam filters were used when collecting the light. The colour of each filter name is the visible light colour used to represent the infrared light that passes through that filter.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, K. Pontoppidan (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), J. Green (Space Telescope Science Institute)

Press release from ESA Webb.

Investigating the origins of the Crab Nebula with Webb

New data revise our view of this unusual supernova explosion.

The Crab Nebula is a nearby example of the debris left behind when a star undergoes a violent death in a supernova explosion. However, despite decades of study, this supernova remnant continues to maintain a degree of mystery: what type of star was responsible for the creation of the Crab Nebula, and what was the nature of the explosion? The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has provided a new view of the Crab, including the highest-quality infrared data yet available to aid scientists as they explore the detailed structure and chemical composition of the remnant. These clues are helping to unravel the unusual way that the star exploded about 1000 years ago.

Image of the Crab Nebula captured by Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI, with compass arrows, scale bar, and colour key for reference.The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to direction arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above). The scale bar is labelled in light-years, which is the distance that light travels in one Earth-year. (It takes two years for light to travel a distance equal to the length of the bar.) One light-year is equal to about 9.46 trillion kilometres or 5.88 trillion miles. The field of view shown in this image is approximately 10 light-years across. This image shows invisible near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which components were observed by NIRCam and MIRI, and which visible-light colour is assigned to each feature. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University)
Image of the Crab Nebula captured by Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI, with compass arrows, scale bar, and colour key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to direction arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above).
The scale bar is labelled in light-years, which is the distance that light travels in one Earth-year. (It takes two years for light to travel a distance equal to the length of the bar.) One light-year is equal to about 9.46 trillion kilometres or 5.88 trillion miles. The field of view shown in this image is approximately 10 light-years across.
This image shows invisible near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which components were observed by NIRCam and MIRI, and which visible-light colour is assigned to each feature.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University)

A team of scientists used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to parse the composition of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant located 6500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. With the telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infared Instrument) and NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), the team gathered data that are helping to clarify the Crab Nebula’s history.

The Crab Nebula is the result of a core-collapse supernova that was the death of a massive star. The supernova explosion itself was seen on Earth in 1054 CE and was bright enough to view during the daytime. The much fainter remnant observed today is an expanding shell of gas and dust, and an outflowing wind powered by a pulsar, a rapidly spinning and highly magnetised neutron star.

The Crab Nebula is also highly unusual. Its atypical composition and very low explosion energy have previously led astronomers to think it was an electron-capture supernova — a rare type of explosion that arises from a star with a less-evolved core made of oxygen, neon, and magnesium, rather than a more typical iron core.

Past research efforts have calculated the total kinetic energy of the explosion based on the quantity and velocities of the present-day ejecta. Astronomers deduced that the nature of the explosion was one of relatively low energy (less than one-tenth that of a normal supernova), and the progenitor star’s mass was in the range of eight to 10 solar masses — teetering on the thin line between stars that experience a violent supernova death and those that do not.

However, inconsistencies exist between the electron-capture supernova theory and observations of the Crab, particularly the observed rapid motion of the pulsar. In recent years, astronomers have also improved their understanding of iron-core-collapse supernovae and now think that this type can also produce low-energy explosions, providing the stellar mass is adequately low.

To lower the level of uncertainty about the Crab’s progenitor star and the nature of the explosion, the science team used Webb’s spectroscopic capabilities to home in on two areas located within the Crab’s inner filaments.

Theories predict that because of the different chemical composition of the core in an electron-capture supernova, the nickel to iron (Ni/Fe) abundance ratio should be much higher than the ratio measured in our Sun (which contains these elements from previous generations of stars). Studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s measured the Ni/Fe ratio within the Crab using optical and near-infrared data and noted a high Ni/Fe abundance ratio that seemed to favour the electron-capture supernova scenario.

The Webb telescope, with its sensitive infrared capabilities, is now advancing Crab Nebula research. The team used MIRI’s spectroscopic abilities to measure the nickel and iron emission lines, resulting in a more reliable estimate of the Ni/Fe abundance ratio. They found that the ratio was still elevated compared to the Sun, but only modestly so and much lower in comparison to earlier estimates.

The revised values are consistent with electron-capture, but do not rule out an iron-core-collapse explosion from a similarly low-mass star. (Higher-energy explosions from higher-mass stars are expected to produce Ni/Fe ratios closer to solar abundances.) Further observational and theoretical work will be needed to distinguish between these two possibilities.

Besides pulling spectral data from two small regions of the Crab Nebula’s interior to measure the abundance ratio, the telescope also observed the remnant’s broader environment to understand details of the synchrotron emission and the dust distribution.

The Crab Nebula seen in new light by Webb

The images and data collected by MIRI enabled the team to isolate the dust emission within the Crab and map it in high resolution for the first time. By mapping the warm dust emission with Webb, and even combining it with the Herschel Space Observatory’s data on cooler dust grains, the team created a well-rounded picture of the dust distribution: the outermost filaments contain relatively warmer dust, while cooler grains are prevalent near the centre.

These findings have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The observations were taken as part of the Webb General Observer programme 1714.

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope dissected the Crab Nebula’s structure, aiding astronomers as they continue to evaluate leading theories about the supernova remnant’s origins. With the data collected by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), a team of scientists were able to closely inspect some of the Crab Nebula’s major components.For the first time ever, astronomers mapped the warm dust emission throughout this supernova remnant. Represented here as fluffy magenta material, the dust grains form a cage-like structure that is most apparent toward the lower left and upper right portions of the remnant. Filaments of dust are also threaded throughout the Crab’s interior and sometimes coincide with regions of doubly ionised sulphur (sulphur III), coloured in green. Yellow-white mottled filaments, which form large loop-like structures around the supernova remnant’s centre, represent areas where dust and doubly ionised sulphur overlap. The dust’s cage-like structure helps constrain some, but not all of the ghostly synchrotron emission represented in blue. The emission resembles wisps of smoke, most notable toward the Crab’s centre. The thin blue ribbons follow the magnetic field lines created by the Crab’s pulsar heart — a rapidly rotating neutron star. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University)
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope dissected the Crab Nebula’s structure, aiding astronomers as they continue to evaluate leading theories about the supernova remnant’s origins. With the data collected by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), a team of scientists were able to closely inspect some of the Crab Nebula’s major components.
For the first time ever, astronomers mapped the warm dust emission throughout this supernova remnant. Represented here as fluffy magenta material, the dust grains form a cage-like structure that is most apparent toward the lower left and upper right portions of the remnant. Filaments of dust are also threaded throughout the Crab’s interior and sometimes coincide with regions of doubly ionised sulphur (sulphur III), coloured in green. Yellow-white mottled filaments, which form large loop-like structures around the supernova remnant’s centre, represent areas where dust and doubly ionised sulphur overlap.
The dust’s cage-like structure helps constrain some, but not all of the ghostly synchrotron emission represented in blue. The emission resembles wisps of smoke, most notable toward the Crab’s centre. The thin blue ribbons follow the magnetic field lines created by the Crab’s pulsar heart — a rapidly rotating neutron star. 
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University)

Press release from ESA Webb.

Webb finds plethora of carbon molecules around ISO-ChaI 147, a young star

An international team of astronomers have used the NASA/ESA/Webb James Webb Space Telescope to study the disc around a young and very low-mass star. The results reveal the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disc (including the first extrasolar detection of ethane) and contribute to our evolving understanding of the diversity of planetary systems.

At the centre of the image, a bright light source illuminates a surrounding disc, the colour of which transitions from bright yellow to darker orange. The image background is black.
This is an artist’s impression of a young star surrounded by a protoplanetary disc.
An international team of astronomers have used the NASA/ESA/Webb James Webb Space Telescope to study the disc around a young and very low-mass star. The results reveal the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disc (including the first extrasolar detection of ethane) and contribute to our evolving understanding of the diversity of planetary systems.
The science team explored the region around a very low-mass star of 0.11 solar masses (known as ISO-ChaI 147). These observations provide insights into the environment as well as basic ingredients for such planets to form. The team found that the gas in the planet-forming region of the star is rich in carbon. This could potentially be because carbon is removed from the solid material from which rocky planets can form, and could explain why Earth is relatively carbon-poor.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Planets form in discs of gas and dust orbiting young stars. Observations indicate that terrestrial planets are expected to form more efficiently than gas giants in the discs around very low-mass stars. While very low-mass stars have the highest rate of occurrence of orbiting rocky planets, their planetary compositions are largely unknown. For example, the Trappist-1 system (which Webb has studied) consists of seven rocky planets within 0.1 au [1] and their composition is generally assumed to be Earth-like. However, new data from Webb suggests that discs around very low-mass stars may evolve differently from those around more massive stars.

The MIRI Mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS) aims to build a bridge between the chemical inventory of discs and the properties of exoplanets. In a new study, this team explored the region around a very low-mass star of 0.11 solar masses (known as ISO-ChaI 147). These observations provide insights into the environment as well as basic ingredients for such planets to form. The team found that the gas in the planet-forming region of the star is rich in carbon. This could potentially be because carbon is removed from the solid material from which rocky planets can form, and could explain why Earth is relatively carbon-poor.

“Webb has a better sensitivity and spectral resolution than previous infrared space telescopes,” explained lead author Aditya Arabhavi of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. These observations are not possible from Earth, because the emissions are blocked by the atmosphere. Previously we could only identify acetylene (C2H2) emission from this object. However, Webb’s higher sensitivity and spectral resolution allowed us to detect weak emission from less abundant molecules. Webb also allowed us to understand that these hydrocarbon molecules are not just diverse but also abundant.”

This graphic presents some of the results from the MIRI Mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS), which aims to build a bridge between the chemical inventory of discs and the properties of exoplanets. In a new study, the science team explored the region around a very low-mass star of 0.11 solar masses (known as ISO-ChaI 147). These observations provide insights into the environment as well as basic ingredients for such planets to form. The team found that the gas in the planet-forming region of the star is rich in carbon. This could potentially be because carbon is removed from the solid material from which rocky planets can form, and could explain why Earth is relatively carbon-poor.The spectrum revealed by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) shows the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disc, consisting of 13 carbon-bearing molecules up to benzene. This includes the first extrasolar detection of ethane (C2H6), the largest fully-saturated hydrocarbon detected outside our Solar System. Since fully-saturated hydrocarbons are expected to form from more basic molecules, detecting them here gives researchers clues about the chemical environment. The team also successfully detected ethylene (C2H4), propyne (C3H4), and the methyl radical CH3, for the first time in a protoplanetary disc.

This graphic highlights the detections of ethane (C2H6), methane (CH4), propyne (C3H4), cyanoacetylene (HC3N), and the methyl radical CH3.

Credit:
NASA, ESA, CSA, R. Crawford (STScI)
This graphic presents some of the results from the MIRI Mid-INfrared Disk Survey (MINDS), which aims to build a bridge between the chemical inventory of discs and the properties of exoplanets. In a new study, the science team explored the region around a very low-mass star of 0.11 solar masses (known as ISO-ChaI 147). These observations provide insights into the environment as well as basic ingredients for such planets to form. The team found that the gas in the planet-forming region of the star is rich in carbon. This could potentially be because carbon is removed from the solid material from which rocky planets can form, and could explain why Earth is relatively carbon-poor.
The spectrum revealed by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) shows the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disc, consisting of 13 carbon-bearing molecules up to benzene. This includes the first extrasolar detection of ethane (C2H6), the largest fully-saturated hydrocarbon detected outside our Solar System. Since fully-saturated hydrocarbons are expected to form from more basic molecules, detecting them here gives researchers clues about the chemical environment. The team also successfully detected ethylene (C2H4), propyne (C3H4), and the methyl radical CH3, for the first time in a protoplanetary disc.
This graphic highlights the detections of ethane (C2H6), methane (CH4), propyne (C3H4), cyanoacetylene (HC3N), and the methyl radical CH3.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, R. Crawford (STScI)

The spectrum revealed by Webb’s Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) shows the richest hydrocarbon chemistry seen to date in a protoplanetary disc, consisting of 13 carbon-bearing molecules up to benzene. This includes the first extrasolar detection of ethane (C2H6), the largest fully-saturated hydrocarbon [2] detected outside our Solar System. Since fully-saturated hydrocarbons are expected to form from more basic molecules, detecting them here gives researchers clues about the chemical environment. The team also successfully detected ethylene (C2H4), propyne (C3H4), and the methyl radical CH3, for the first time in a protoplanetary disc.

“These molecules have already been detected in our Solar System, for example in comets such as 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy),” adds Arabhavi. “It is amazing that we can now see the dance of these molecules in the planetary cradles. It is a very different planet-forming environment from what we usually think of.”

The team indicates that these results have large implications for astrochemistry in the inner 0.1 au and the planets forming there. “This is profoundly different from the composition we see in discs around solar-type stars, where oxygen bearing molecules dominate (like carbon dioxide and water),” added team member Inga Kamp, also of the University of Groningen. “This object establishes that these are a unique class of objects.”

“It’s incredible that we can detect and quantify the amount of molecules that we know well on Earth, such as benzene, in an object that is more than 600 light-years away,” added team member Agnés Perrin of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.

Next, the science team intend to expand their study to a larger sample of such discs around very low-mass stars to develop their understanding of how common such exotic carbon-rich terrestrial planet forming regions are. “The expansion of our study will also allow us to better understand how these molecules can form,” explained team member and PI of the MINDS programme, Thomas Henning, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. “Several features in the Webb data are also still unidentified, so more spectroscopy is required to fully interpret our observations.”

This work also highlights the crucial need for scientists to collaborate across disciplines. The team notes that these results and the accompanying data can contribute towards other fields including theoretical physics, chemistry and astrochemistry, to interpret the spectra and to investigate new features in this wavelength range.

These results have been published in the journal Science.

Notes

[1] An astronomical unit (AU, or au) is a unit of length effectively equal to the average, or mean, distance between Earth and the Sun, which is defined as roughly 150 million kilometres.

[2] Saturated hydrocarbons are molecules that are made entirely of single carbon-carbon bonds. They cannot incorporate additional atoms into their structure, and are therefore said to be saturated.

 

Press release from ESA Webb.

Webb detects most distant black hole merger to date in the ZS7 galaxy system

An international team of astronomers have used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to find evidence for an ongoing merger of two galaxies and their massive black holes when the Universe was only 740 million years old. This marks the most distant detection of a black hole merger ever obtained and the first time that this phenomenon has been detected so early in the Universe.

Three panels are shown showing an increasingly small area of the PRIMER galaxy field. The first image shows a large field of galaxies on the black background of space. The second image shows a smaller region from this field, revealing the galaxies in closer detail, appearing in a variety of shapes and colours. The final image shows the ZS7 galaxy system, revealing the ionised hydrogen emission in orange and the doubly ionised oxygen emission in dark red.
This image shows the location of the galaxy system ZS7 from the JWST PRIMER programme (PI: J. Dunlop). New research using the NIRSpec instrument on the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope have determined the system to be evidence of an ongoing merger of two galaxies and their massive black holes when the Universe was only 740 million years old. This marks the most distant detection of a black hole merger ever obtained and the first time that this phenomenon has been detected so early in the Universe.
The team has found evidence for very dense gas with fast motions in the vicinity of the black hole, as well as hot and highly ionised gas illuminated by the energetic radiation typically produced by black holes in their accretion episodes. Webb also allowed the team to spatially separate the two black holes and determined that one of the two black holes has a mass that is 50 million times the mass of the Sun. The mass of the other black hole is likely similar, although it is harder to measure because this second black hole is buried in dense gas.
In this Webb NIRCam image, the ionised hydrogen (Hβ) emission in the ZS7 system is identified by the orange region and the doubly ionised oxygen (OIII) emission is visible in dark red (right image).
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, J. Dunlop, D. Magee, P. G. Pérez-González, H. Übler, R. Maiolino, et al.

Astronomers have found supermassive black holes with masses of millions to billions times that of the Sun in most massive galaxies in the local Universe, including in our Milky Way galaxy. These black holes have likely had a major impact on the evolution of the galaxies they reside in. However, scientists still don’t fully understand how these objects grew to become so massive. The finding of gargantuan black holes already in place in the first billion years after the Big Bang indicates that such growth must have happened very rapidly, and very early. Now, the James Webb Space Telescope is shedding new light on the growth of black holes in the early Universe.

The new Webb observations have provided evidence for an ongoing merger of two galaxies and their massive black holes when the Universe was just 740 million years old. The system is known as ZS7.

Massive black holes that are actively accreting matter have distinctive spectrographic features that allow astronomers to identify them. For very distant galaxies, like those in this study, these signatures are inaccessible from the ground and can only be seen with Webb.

“We found evidence for very dense gas with fast motions in the vicinity of the black hole, as well as hot and highly ionised gas illuminated by the energetic radiation typically produced by black holes in their accretion episodes,” explained lead author Hannah Übler of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “Thanks to the unprecedented sharpness of its imaging capabilities, Webb also allowed our team to spatially separate the two black holes.”

The team found that one of the two black holes has a mass that is 50 million times the mass of the Sun.

“The mass of the other black hole is likely similar, although it is much harder to measure because this second black hole is buried in dense gas,” 

explained team member Roberto Maiolino of the University of Cambridge and University College London in the United Kingdom.

“Our findings suggest that merging is an important route through which black holes can rapidly grow, even at cosmic dawn,” explained Übler. “Together with other Webb findings of active, massive black holes in the distant Universe, our results also show that massive black holes have been shaping the evolution of galaxies from the very beginning.”

“The stellar mass of the system we studied is similar to that of our neighbor the Large Magellanic Cloud,” shared team member Pablo G. Pérez-González of the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), CSIC/INTA, in Spain. “We can try to imagine how the evolution of merging galaxies could be affected if each galaxy had one super massive black hole as large or larger than the one we have in the Milky Way”. 

This image features the ZS7 galaxy system, showing a large field of hundreds of galaxies on the black background of space.
This image shows the environment of the galaxy system ZS7 from the JWST PRIMER programme (PI: J. Dunlop) as seen by Webb’s NIRCam instrument.
New research using the NIRSpec instrument on the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has determined the system to be evidence of an ongoing merger of two galaxies and their massive black holes when the Universe was only 740 million years old. This marks the most distant detection of a black hole merger ever obtained and the first time that this phenomenon has been detected so early in the Universe.
The team has found evidence for very dense gas with fast motions in the vicinity of the black hole, as well as hot and highly ionised gas illuminated by the energetic radiation typically produced by black holes in their accretion episodes. Webb also allowed the team to spatially separate the two black holes and determined that one of the two black holes has a mass that is 50 million times the mass of the Sun. The mass of the other black hole is likely similar, although it is harder to measure because this second black hole is buried in dense gas.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, J. Dunlop, D. Magee, P. G. Pérez-González, H. Übler, R. Maiolino, et al.

The team also notes that once the two black holes merge, they will also generate gravitational waves [1]. Events like this will be detectable with the next generation of gravitational wave observatories, such as the upcoming Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, which was recently approved by the European Space Agency and will be the first space-based observatory dedicated to studying gravitational waves.

“Webb’s results are telling us that lighter systems detectable by LISA should be far more frequent than previously assumed,” shared LISA Lead Project Scientist Nora Luetzgendorf of the European Space Agency in the Netherlands. “It will most likely make us adjust our models for LISA rates in this mass range. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

This discovery was from observations made as part of the Galaxy Assembly with NIRSpec Integral Field Spectroscopy programme. The team has recently been awarded a new Large Programme in Webb’s Cycle 3 of observations, to study in detail the relationship between massive black holes and their host galaxies in the first billion years. An important component of this programme will be to systematically search for and characterise black hole mergers. This effort will determine the rate at which black hole merging occurs at early cosmic epochs and will assess the role of merging in the early growth of black holes and the rate at which gravitational waves are produced from the dawn of time.

These results have been published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Notes

[1] Gravitational waves are invisible ripples in the fabric of spacetime. Spacetime is a four-dimensional quantity, described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which fuses three-dimensional space with time. Mass warps spacetime, and gravity is actually the result of spacetime being curved by an object’s mass. Ripples through spacetime are created by the movement of any object with mass, and these are known as gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are constantly passing unnoticed through Earth and they are caused by some of the most violent and energetic events in the Universe. These include colliding black holes, collapsing stellar cores, merging neutron stars or white dwarf stars, the wobble of neutron stars that are not perfect spheres and possibly even the remnants of gravitational radiation created at the birth of the Universe.

 

Press release from ESA Webb.

Webb hints at possible atmosphere surrounding 55 Cancri e, a rocky exoplanet

 

Researchers using the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope may have detected atmospheric gases surrounding 55 Cancri e, a hot rocky exoplanet 41 light-years from Earth. This is the best evidence to date for the existence of a rocky planet atmosphere outside our Solar System.

Renyu Hu from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, USA, is the lead author of a paper published today in Nature.

“Webb is pushing the frontiers of exoplanet characterisation to rocky planets,” Hu said. “It is truly enabling a new type of science.”

Super-hot super-Earth 55 Cancri e

55 Cancri e is one of five known planets orbiting a Sun-like star in the constellation Cancer. With a diameter nearly twice that of Earth and a density slightly greater, the planet is classified as a super-Earth: larger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and likely similar in composition to the rocky planets in our Solar System.

To describe 55 Cancri e as rocky, however, could give the wrong impression. The planet orbits so close to its star (about 2.25 million kilometres, or one twenty-fifth of the distance between Mercury and the Sun) that its surface is likely to be molten – a bubbling ocean of magma. In such a tight orbit, the planet is also likely to be tidally locked, with a dayside that faces the star at all times and a nightside in perpetual darkness.

In spite of numerous observations since it was discovered to transit in 2011, the question of whether or not 55 Cancri e has an atmosphere – or even could have one, given its high temperature and the continuous onslaught of stellar radiation and wind from its star – has gone unanswered.

“I’ve worked on this planet for more than a decade,” said Diana Dragomir, an exoplanet researcher at the University of New Mexico in the USA and a co-author of the study. “It’s been really frustrating that none of the observations we’ve been getting have robustly solved these mysteries. I am thrilled that we are finally getting some answers!”

Unlike gas-giant atmospheres, which are relatively easy to spot (the first was detected by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope more than two decades ago), thinner and denser atmospheres surrounding rocky planets have remained elusive.

Previous studies of 55 Cancri e using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope suggested the presence of a substantial atmosphere rich in volatiles (molecules that occur in gas form on Earth) like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. But researchers could not rule out another possibility: that the planet is bare, save for a tenuous shroud of vaporised rock, rich in elements like silicon, iron, aluminium, and calcium.

“The planet is so hot that some of the molten rock should evaporate,” explained Hu.

Illustration of a rocky exoplanet and its star. The star is in the background at the lower left and appears somewhat smaller in the sky than the planet. The planet has hints of a rocky, partly molten surface beneath the haze of a thin atmosphere.
This artist’s concept shows what the exoplanet 55 Cancri e could look like.
Also called Janssen, 55 Cancri e is a so-called super-Earth, a rocky planet significantly larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, which orbits its star at a distance of only 2.25 million kilometres (0.015 astronomical units), completing one full orbit in less than 18 hours. In comparison, Mercury is 25 times farther from the Sun than 55 Cancri e is from its star. The system, which also includes four large gas-giant planets, is located about 41 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Cancer.
Observations from Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI suggest that the planet may be surrounded by an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide (CO2) or carbon monoxide (CO). Because it is so close to its star, the planet is extremely hot and is thought to be covered in molten rock. Researchers think that the gases that make up the atmosphere could have bubbled out of the magma.
The star, 55 Cancri, is a K-type star nearly the same size and mass as the Sun, but slightly cooler and dimmer. It is just bright enough to see with the naked eye in a very dark sky. The star and planet are so close to each other that the star would appear 70 times wider in the planet’s sky than the Sun appears in our sky. In addition, because the planet is likely to be tidally locked, from any given point the star would appear fixed in the sky.
This artist’s concept is based on new data gathered by NIRCam and MIRI as well as previous observations from other ground- and space-based telescopes, including NASA’s Hubble and the now-retired Spitzer space telescopes. Webb has not captured any images of the planet.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, R. Crawford (STScI)

Measuring subtle variations in infrared colours

To distinguish between the two possibilities, the team used Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) to measure 4- to 12-micron infrared light coming from the planet.

Although Webb cannot capture a direct image of 55 Cancri e, it can measure subtle changes in the light from the whole system as the planet orbits the star.

By subtracting the brightness during the secondary eclipse, when the planet is behind the star (starlight only), from the brightness when the planet is right beside the star (light from the star and planet combined), the team was able to calculate the amount of various wavelengths of infrared light coming from the dayside of the planet.

This method, known as secondary eclipse spectroscopy, is similar to that used by other research teams to search for atmospheres on other rocky exoplanets, like TRAPPIST-1 b.

Diagram of a secondary eclipse and a graph of change in brightness over time. Below the diagram is a graph showing the change in brightness of mid-infrared light emitted by the star-planet system over the course of about four and a half hours. The infographic shows that the brightness of the system decreases as the planet moves behind the star.
This lightcurve shows the change in brightness of the 55 Cancri system as the rocky planet 55 Cancri e, the closest of the five known planets in the system, moves behind the star. This phenomenon is known as a secondary eclipse.
When the planet is beside the star, the mid-infrared light emitted by both the star and the dayside of the planet reaches the telescope, and the system appears brighter. When the planet is behind the star, the light emitted by the planet is blocked and only the starlight reaches the telescope, causing the apparent brightness to decrease.
Astronomers can subtract the brightness of the star from the combined brightness of the star and planet to calculate how much infrared light is coming from the dayside of the planet. This is then used to calculate the dayside temperature and infer whether or not the planet has an atmosphere.
The graph shows data collected using the low-resolution spectroscopy mode on Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) in March 2023. Each of the purple data points shows the brightness of light ranging in wavelength from 7.5 to 11.8 microns, averaged over intervals of about five minutes. The grey line is the best fit, or model lightcurve that matches the data most closely. The decrease in brightness during the secondary eclipse is just 110 parts per million, or about 0.011 percent.
The temperature of the planet calculated from this observation is about 1800 kelvins (around 1500 degrees Celsius), which is significantly lower than would be expected if the planet has no atmosphere or only a thin rock-vapour atmosphere. This relatively low temperature indicates that heat is being distributed from the dayside to the nightside of the planet, possibly by a volatile-rich atmosphere.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI), A. Bello-Arufe (JPL)

 55 Cancri e is cooler than expected

The first indication that 55 Cancri e could have a substantial atmosphere came from temperature measurements based on its thermal emission, the heat energy given off in the form of infrared light. If the planet is covered in dark molten rock with a thin veil of vaporised rock, or has no atmosphere at all, the dayside should be around 2200 degrees Celsius.

“Instead, the MIRI data showed a relatively low temperature of about 1540 degrees Celsius,” said Hu. “This is a very strong indication that energy is being distributed from the dayside to the nightside, most likely by a volatile-rich atmosphere.”

 While currents of lava can carry some heat around to the nightside, they cannot move it efficiently enough to explain the cooling effect.

When the team looked at the NIRCam data, they saw patterns consistent with a volatile-rich atmosphere.

“We see evidence of a dip in the spectrum between 4 and 5 microns — less of this light is reaching the telescope,” explained co-author Aaron Bello-Arufe, also from JPL. “This suggests the presence of an atmosphere containing carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, both of which absorb these wavelengths of light.”

A planet with no atmosphere or only vaporised rock in an atmosphere would not have this specific spectral feature.

“This is exciting news,” said co-author Yamila Miguel from Leiden Observatory and the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON), both in the Netherlands. “We’ve spent the last ten years modelling different scenarios, trying to imagine what this world might look like. Finally getting some confirmation of our work is priceless!”

Bubbling magma ocean

The team thinks that the gases blanketing 55 Cancri e would be bubbling out from the interior, rather than being present since the planet’s formation. 

“The primary atmosphere would be long gone because of the high temperature and intense radiation from the star,” said Bello-Arufe. “This would be a secondary atmosphere that is continuously replenished by the magma ocean. Magma is not only crystals and liquid rock, there’s a lot of dissolved gas in it, too.”

In all likelihood, any atmosphere surrounding the planet would be more complex and quite variable as a result of interactions with the magma ocean. In addition to carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, there could be gases like nitrogen, water vapour, sulphur dioxide, some vaporised rock, and even short-lived clouds made of tiny droplets of lava condensed from the air.

While 55 Cancri e is far too hot to be habitable, researchers think it could provide a unique window for studying interactions between the atmospheres, surfaces and interiors of rocky planets, and perhaps provide insights into the early Earth, Venus and Mars, which are thought to have been covered in magma oceans in the past. 

“Ultimately, we want to understand what conditions make it possible for a rocky planet to sustain a gas-rich atmosphere, a key ingredient for a habitable planet,” said Hu.

This research was conducted as part of Webb’s General Observers (GO) Program 1952. Analysis of additional secondary eclipse observations of 55 Cancri e are currently in progress. In the future, the team hopes to capture a full phase curve with Webb in order to map temperature differences from one side of the planet to the other, to get a better sense of the planet’s weather, climate and more detailed atmospheric conditions.

Graph showing the brightness of light captured by Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI instruments plotted alongside two different model emission spectra, and an illustration of the planet and its star in the background.
A thermal emission spectrum captured by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) in November 2022, and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) in March 2023, shows the brightness (y-axis) of different wavelengths of infrared light (x-axis) emitted by the super-Earth exoplanet 55 Cancri e. The spectrum shows that the planet may be surrounded by an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide and other volatiles, not just vaporised rock.
The graph compares data collected by NIRCam (orange dots) and MIRI (purple dots) to two different models. Model A, in red, shows what the emission spectrum of 55 Cancri e should look like if it has an atmosphere made of vaporised rock. Model B, in blue, shows what the emission spectrum should look like if the planet has a volatile-rich atmosphere outgassed from a magma ocean that has a volatile content similar to Earth’s mantle. Both MIRI and NIRCam data are consistent with the volatile-rich model.
The amount of mid-infrared light emitted by the planet (MIRI) shows that its dayside temperature is significantly lower than it would be if it did not have an atmosphere to distribute heat from the dayside to the nightside. The dip in the spectrum between 4 and 5 microns (NIRCam data) can be explained by absorption of those wavelengths by carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere.
The spectrum was made by measuring the brightness of 4- to 5-micron light with Webb’s NIRCam GRISM spectrometer, and 5- to 12-micron light with the MIRI low-resolution spectrometer, before, during and after the planet moved behind its star (the secondary eclipse ). The amount of each wavelength emitted by the planet (y-axis) was calculated by subtracting the brightness of the star alone (during the secondary eclipse) from the brightness of the star and planet combined (before and after the eclipse). Each observation lasted about eight hours.
Note that the NIRCam data have been shifted vertically to align with Model B. Although the differences in brightness between each wavelength in the NIRCam band were derived from the observation (the data suggest a valley between 4 and 5 microns), the absolute brightness (the vertical position of that valley) could not be measured precisely because of noise in the data.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted (STScI), R. Hu (JPL), A. Bello-Arufe (JPL), M. Zhang (University of Chicago), M. Zilinskas (SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research)

Press release from ESA Webb.

Webb captures iconic Horsehead Nebula in unprecedented detail

 

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured the sharpest infrared images to date of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies, the Horsehead Nebula. These observations show a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.

A collage of three images of the Horsehead Nebula. In the left image labelled “Euclid (Visible-Infrared)”, the Nebula is seen amongst its surroundings. A small box around it connects to the second image labelled “Hubble (Infrared)”, where the Nebula is zoomed in on. A portion of the Nebula’s head has another box, which leads with a callout to the third image, labelled “Webb (Infrared)”, of that area.
This image showcases three views of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies, the Horsehead Nebula. This object resides in part of the sky in the constellation Orion (The Hunter), in the western side of the Orion B molecular cloud. Rising from turbulent waves of dust and gas is the Horsehead Nebula, otherwise known as Barnard 33, which resides roughly 1300 light-years away.
The first image (left), released in November 2023, features the Horsehead Nebula as seen by ESA’s Euclid telescope. Euclid captured this image of the Horsehead in about one hour, which showcases the mission’s ability to very quickly image an unprecedented area of the sky in high detail.
The second image (middle) shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared view of the Horsehead Nebula, which was featured as the telescope’s 23rd anniversary image in 2013. This image captures plumes of gas in the infrared and reveals a beautiful, delicate structure that is normally obscured by dust.
The third image (right) features a new view of the Horsehead Nebula from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) instrument. It is the sharpest infrared image of the object to date, showing a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, and capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.
Credit: ESA/Euclid/Euclid Consortium/NASA, image processing by J.-C. Cuillandre (CEA Paris-Saclay), G. Anselmi, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI), ESA/Webb, CSA, K. Misselt (University of Arizona) and A. Abergel (IAS/University Paris-Saclay, CNRS), M. Zamani (ESA/Webb)

Webb’s new images show part of the sky in the constellation Orion (The Hunter), in the western side of the Orion B molecular cloud. Rising from turbulent waves of dust and gas is the Horsehead Nebula, otherwise known as Barnard 33, which resides roughly 1300 light-years away.

The nebula formed from a collapsing interstellar cloud of material, and glows because it is illuminated by a nearby hot star. The gas clouds surrounding the Horsehead have already dissipated, but the jutting pillar is made of thick clumps of material that is harder to erode. Astronomers estimate that the Horsehead has about five million years left before it too disintegrates. Webb’s new view focuses on the illuminated edge of the top of the nebula’s distinctive dust and gas structure.

The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known photodissociation region, or PDR. In such a region ultraviolet light from young, massive stars creates a mostly neutral, warm area of gas and dust between the fully ionised gas surrounding the massive stars and the clouds in which they are born. This ultraviolet radiation strongly influences the gas chemistry of these regions and acts as the most important source of heat.

These regions occur where interstellar gas is dense enough to remain neutral, but not dense enough to prevent the penetration of far-ultraviolet light from massive stars. The light emitted from such PDRs provides a unique tool to study the physical and chemical processes that drive the evolution of interstellar matter in our galaxy, and throughout the Universe from the early era of vigorous star formation to the present day.

Owing to its proximity and its nearly edge-on geometry, the Horsehead Nebula is an ideal target for astronomers to study the physical structures of PDRs and the evolution of the chemical characteristics of the gas and dust within their respective environments, and the transition regions between them. It is considered one of the best objects in the sky to study how radiation interacts with interstellar matter.

At the bottom of the image a small portion of the Horsehead Nebula is seen close-in, as a curved wall of thick, smoky gas and dust. Above the nebula various distant stars and galaxies can be seen up to the top of the image. One star is very bright and large, with six long diffraction spikes that cross the image. The background fades from a dark red colour above the nebula to black.
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured the sharpest infrared images to date of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies, the Horsehead Nebula. These observations show a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.
Webb’s new images show part of the sky in the constellation Orion (The Hunter), in the western side of the Orion B molecular cloud. Rising from turbulent waves of dust and gas is the Horsehead Nebula, otherwise known as Barnard 33, which resides roughly 1300 light-years away.
The nebula formed from a collapsing interstellar cloud of material, and glows because it is illuminated by a nearby hot star. The gas clouds surrounding the Horsehead have already dissipated, but the jutting pillar is made of thick clumps of material that is harder to erode. Astronomers estimate that the Horsehead has about five million years left before it too disintegrates. Webb’s new view focuses on the illuminated edge of the top of the nebula’s distinctive dust and gas structure.
The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known photon-dominated region, or PDR. In such a region ultraviolet light from young, massive stars creates a mostly neutral, warm area of gas and dust between the fully ionised gas surrounding the massive stars and the clouds in which they are born. This ultraviolet radiation strongly influences the gas chemistry of these regions and acts as the most important source of heat.
These regions occur where interstellar gas is dense enough to remain neutral, but not dense enough to prevent the penetration of far-ultraviolet light from massive stars. The light emitted from such PDRs provides a unique tool to study the physical and chemical processes that drive the evolution of interstellar matter in our galaxy, and throughout the Universe from the early era of vigorous star formation to the present day.
Owing to its proximity and its nearly edge-on geometry, the Horsehead Nebula is an ideal target for astronomers to study the physical structures of PDRs and the evolution of the chemical characteristics of the gas and dust within their respective environments, and the transition regions between them. It is considered one of the best objects in the sky to study how radiation interacts with interstellar matter.
This image was captured with Webb’s NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) instrument.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, K. Misselt (University of Arizona) and A. Abergel (IAS/University Paris-Saclay, CNRS)

Thanks to Webb’s MIRI and NIRCam instruments, an international team of astronomers have revealed for the first time the small-scale structures of the illuminated edge of the Horsehead. They have also detected a network of striated features extending perpendicular to the PDR front and containing dust particles and ionised gas entrained in the photo-evaporative flow of the nebula. The observations have also allowed astronomers to investigate the effects of dust attenuation and emission, and to better understand the multidimensional shape of the nebula.

The image is more than half-filled by a small section of the Horsehead Nebula, from the bottom up. The clouds are seen up close, showing thick, whitish streaks and dark voids, as well as textured, fuzzy-looking patterns of dust and gas. The nebula stops at a spiky edge that follows a slight curve. Above it a small number of distant stars and galaxies lie on a dark but multi-coloured background.
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured the sharpest infrared images to date of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies, the Horsehead Nebula. These observations show a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.
Webb’s new images show part of the sky in the constellation Orion (The Hunter), in the western side of the Orion B molecular cloud. Rising from turbulent waves of dust and gas is the Horsehead Nebula, otherwise known as Barnard 33, which resides roughly 1300 light-years away.
The nebula formed from a collapsing interstellar cloud of material, and glows because it is illuminated by a nearby hot star. The gas clouds surrounding the Horsehead have already dissipated, but the jutting pillar is made of thick clumps of material that is harder to erode. Astronomers estimate that the Horsehead has about five million years left before it too disintegrates. Webb’s new view focuses on the illuminated edge of the top of the nebula’s distinctive dust and gas structure.
The Horsehead Nebula is a well-known photon-dominated region, or PDR. In such a region ultraviolet light from young, massive stars creates a mostly neutral, warm area of gas and dust between the fully ionised gas surrounding the massive stars and the clouds in which they are born. This ultraviolet radiation strongly influences the gas chemistry of these regions and acts as the most important source of heat.
These regions occur where interstellar gas is dense enough to remain neutral, but not dense enough to prevent the penetration of far-ultraviolet light from massive stars. The light emitted from such PDRs provides a unique tool to study the physical and chemical processes that drive the evolution of interstellar matter in our galaxy, and throughout the Universe from the early era of vigorous star formation to the present day.
Owing to its proximity and its nearly edge-on geometry, the Horsehead Nebula is an ideal target for astronomers to study the physical structures of PDRs and the evolution of the chemical characteristics of the gas and dust within their respective environments, and the transition regions between them. It is considered one of the best objects in the sky to study how radiation interacts with interstellar matter.
This image was captured with Webb’s MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument).
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, K. Misselt (University of Arizona) and A. Abergel (IAS/University Paris-Saclay, CNRS)

Next, astronomers intend to study the spectroscopic data that have been obtained of the nebula to evidence the evolution of the physical and chemical properties of the material observed across the nebula.

These observations were taken in the Webb GTO programme #1192 (PI: K. Misselt) and the results have been accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics (Abergel et al. 2024).

 

Press release from ESA Webb.

Hubble celebrates 34th anniversary with a look at the Little Dumbbell Nebula

In celebration of the 34th anniversary of the launch of the legendary NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 24 April, astronomers took a snapshot of the Little Dumbbell Nebula (also known as Messier 76, M76, or NGC 650/651) located 3400 light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Perseus. The photogenic nebula is a favourite target of amateur astronomers.

A Hubble image of the Little Dumbbell Nebula. The name comes from its shape, which is a two-lobed structure of colourful, mottled glowing gases that resemble a balloon that has been pinched around a middle waist. Like an inflating balloon, the lobes are expanding into space from a dying star seen as a white dot in the centre. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red colour is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen.
In celebration of the 34th anniversary of the launch of the legendary NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers took a snapshot of the Little Dumbbell Nebula (also known as Messier 76, M76, or NGC 650/651) located 3400 light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Perseus. The photogenic nebula is a favourite target of amateur astronomers.
M76 is classified as a planetary nebula. This is a misnomer because it is unrelated to planets. But its round shape suggested it was a planet to astronomers who first viewed it through low-power telescopes. In reality, a planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gases that were ejected from a dying red giant star. The star eventually collapses to an ultra-dense, hot white dwarf.
M76 is composed of a ring, seen edge-on as the central bar structure, and two lobes on either opening of the ring. Before the star burned out, it ejected the ring of gas and dust. The ring was probably sculpted by the effects of the star that once had a binary companion star. This sloughed-off material created a thick disc of dust and gas along the plane of the companion’s orbit. The hypothetical companion star isn’t seen in the Hubble image, and so it could have been later swallowed by the central star. The disc would be forensic evidence for that stellar cannibalism.
The primary star is collapsing to form a white dwarf. It is one of the hottest stellar remnants known at a scorching 120 000 degrees Celsius, 24 times our Sun’s surface temperature. The sizzling white dwarf can be seen as a pinpoint in the centre of the nebula. A star visible in projection beneath it is not part of the nebula.
Pinched off by the disc, two lobes of hot gas are escaping from the top and bottom of the ‘belt’ along the star’s rotation axis that is perpendicular to the disc. They are being propelled by the hurricane-like outflow of material from the dying star, tearing across space at two million miles per hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in a little over seven minutes! This torrential ‘stellar wind’ is ploughing into cooler, slower-moving gas that was ejected at an earlier stage in the star’s life, when it was a red giant. Ferocious ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red colour is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen.
The entire nebula is a flash in the pan by cosmological timekeeping. It will vanish in about 15 000 years.
Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, A. Pagan (STScI)

M76 is classified as a planetary nebula, an expanding shell of glowing gases that were ejected from a dying red giant star. The star eventually collapses to an ultra-dense and hot white dwarf. A planetary nebula is unrelated to planets, but has that name because astronomers in the 1700s using low-power telescopes thought this type of object resembled a planet.

M76 is composed of a ring, seen edge-on as the central bar structure, and two lobes on either opening of the ring. Before the star burned out, it ejected the ring of gas and dust. The ring was probably sculpted by the effects of the star that once had a binary companion star. This sloughed-off material created a thick disc of dust and gas along the plane of the companion’s orbit. The hypothetical companion star isn’t seen in the Hubble image, and so it could have been later swallowed by the central star. The disc would be forensic evidence for that stellar cannibalism.

The primary star is collapsing to form a white dwarf. It is one of the hottest stellar remnants known, at a scorching 120 000 degrees Celsius, 24 times our Sun’s surface temperature. 
The sizzling white dwarf can be seen as a pinpoint in the centre of the nebula. A star visible in projection beneath it is not part of the nebula.

Pinched off by the disc, two lobes of hot gas are escaping from the top and bottom of the ‘belt’ along the star’s rotation axis that is perpendicular to the disc. They are being propelled by the hurricane-like outflow of material from the dying star, tearing across space at two million miles per hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in a little over seven minutes! This torrential ‘stellar wind’ is ploughing into cooler, slower-moving gas that was ejected at an earlier stage in the star’s life, when it was a red giant. Ferocious ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red colour is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen.

Given that our solar system is 4.6 billion years old, the entire nebula is a flash in the pan by cosmological timekeeping. It will vanish in about 15 000 years.


34 years of science and imagery

Since its launch in 1990 Hubble has made 1.6 million observations of over 53 000 astronomical objects. To date, the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland holds 184 terabytes of processed data that are science-ready for use by astronomers around the world to use for research and analysis. A European mirror of the public data is hosted at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), in the European Hubble Space Telescope (eHST) Science Archive.

Since 1990, 44 000 science papers have been published from Hubble observations. This includes a record 1056 papers published in 2023, of which 409 were led by authors in the ESA Member States. The demand for using Hubble is so high it is currently oversubscribed by a factor of six.

Throughout its past year of science operations, new discoveries made using Hubble include finding water in the atmosphere of the smallest exoplanet to date, spotting a bizarre cosmic explosion far from any host galaxy, following spokes on the rings of Saturn and finding the unexpected home of the most distant and powerful fast radio burst yet seen. Hubble’s studies of the asteroid Dimorphos, the target of a deliberate NASA spacecraft collision in September 2022 to alter its trajectory, continued with the detection of boulders released by the impact.

Hubble has also continued to provide spectacular images of celestial targets including spiral galaxiesglobular clusters and star-forming nebulae. A newly forming star was the source of a cosmic light show. Hubble imagery was also combined with infrared observations from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to create one of the most comprehensive views of the Universe ever, an image of galaxy cluster MACS 0416.

Most of Hubble’s discoveries were not anticipated before launch, such as supermassive black holes, the atmospheres of exoplanets, gravitational lensing by dark matter, the presence of dark energy, and the abundance of planet formation among stars. Hubble will continue research in those domains, as well as capitalising on its unique ultraviolet-light capability to examine such things as Solar System phenomena, supernova outbursts, the composition of exoplanet atmospheres, and dynamic emission from galaxies. And Hubble investigations continue to benefit from its long baseline of observations of Solar System objects, variable stellar phenomena and other exotic astrophysics of the cosmos.

The performance characteristics of the James Webb Space Telescope were designed to be uniquely complementary to Hubble, and not a substitute. Future Hubble research also will take advantage of the opportunity for synergies with Webb, which observes the Universe in infrared light. Combined together, the complementary wavelength coverage of the two space telescopes expands on groundbreaking research in such areas as protostellar discs, exoplanet composition, unusual supernovae, cores of galaxies and chemistry of the distant Universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been operating for over three decades and continues to make ground-breaking discoveries that shape our fundamental understanding of the Universe.

Annotated image labeled “Little Dumbbell Nebula, M76, HST WFC3/UVIS” against the black background of space. Near top left, a color key consisting of five lines reads: “F475W SDSS g’” in light blue; “F502N OIII” in dark blue; “F656N Ha” in green; “F658N NIII” in red; and “F814W I” in orange. The nebula is located 3,400 light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Perseus. The name ‘Little Dumbbell’ comes from its shape that is a two-lobed structure of colorful, mottled, glowing gases resembling a balloon that’s been pinched around a middle waist. Like an inflating balloon, the lobes are expanding into space from a dying star seen as a white dot in the centre. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red color is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen. At bottom left corner is a scale bar labeled “1 light-year.” At bottom right corner, the “E” compass arrow points towards the 10 o’clock position. The “N” arrow points towards the 1 o’clock position.
In celebration of the 34th anniversary of the launch of the legendary NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers took a snapshot of the Little Dumbbell Nebula (also known as Messier 76, M76, or NGC 650/651) located 3400 light-years away in the northern circumpolar constellation Perseus. The photogenic nebula is a favourite target of amateur astronomers.
M76 is classified as a planetary nebula. This is a misnomer because it is unrelated to planets. But its round shape suggested it was a planet to astronomers who first viewed it through low-power telescopes. In reality, a planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gases that were ejected from a dying red giant star. The star eventually collapses to an ultra-dense, hot white dwarf.
M76 is composed of a ring, seen edge-on as the central bar structure, and two lobes on either opening of the ring. Before the star burned out, it ejected the ring of gas and dust. The ring was probably sculpted by the effects of the star that once had a binary companion star. This sloughed-off material created a thick disc of dust and gas along the plane of the companion’s orbit. The hypothetical companion star isn’t seen in the Hubble image, and so it could have been later swallowed by the central star. The disc would be forensic evidence for that stellar cannibalism.
The primary star is collapsing to form a white dwarf. It is one of the hottest stellar remnants known at a scorching 120 000 degrees Celsius, 24 times our Sun’s surface temperature. 
The sizzling white dwarf can be seen as a pinpoint in the centre of the nebula. A star visible in projection beneath it is not part of the nebula.


Pinched off by the disc, two lobes of hot gas are escaping from the top and bottom of the ‘belt’ along the star’s rotation axis that is perpendicular to the disc. They are being propelled by the hurricane-like outflow of material from the dying star, tearing across space at two million miles per hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in a little over seven minutes! This torrential ‘stellar wind’ is ploughing into cooler, slower-moving gas that was ejected at an earlier stage in the star’s life, when it was a red giant. Ferocious ultraviolet radiation from the super-hot star is causing the gases to glow. The red colour is from nitrogen, and blue is from oxygen.

The entire nebula is a flash in the pan by cosmological timekeeping. It will vanish in about 15 000 years.
Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, A. Pagan (STScI)

Press release from ESA Hubble

Hubble goes hunting for small main-belt asteroids

Astronomers recently used a trove of archived images taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to visually snag a largely unseen population of smaller asteroids in their tracks. The treasure hunt required pursuing 37 000 Hubble images spanning 19 years. The payoff was finding 1701 asteroid trails, with 1031 of those asteroids uncatalogued. About 400 of these uncatalogued asteroids are about below a kilometre in size.

Annotated image of barred spiral galaxy UGC 12158 against the black background of space, with compass arrows, a scale bar, and colour key for reference. The galaxy has a pinwheel shape made up of bright blue stars wound around a yellow-white hub of central stars. The galaxy is tilted face-on to our view from Earth. A slightly S-shaped white line across the top is the Hubble image of an asteroid streaking across Hubble’s view. Indicated filters are expressed as: “F475W” in blue, “F606W” in green, and “F814W” in red. At the bottom left corner is a scale bar labelled “60,000 light-years” over “30 arcseconds.” At the bottom right corner, the “E” compass arrow points towards the 2 o’clock position. The “N” compass arrow points towards the 5 o’clock position.
This is an annotated NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the barred spiral galaxy UGC 12158, with compass arrows, a scale bar, and colour key for reference. It looks like someone took a white marking pen to it. In reality it is a combination of time exposures of a foreground asteroid moving through Hubble’s field of view, photobombing the observation of the galaxy. Several exposures of the galaxy were taken, which is evidenced by the dashed pattern.
The asteroid appears as a curved trail as a result of parallax: Hubble is not stationary, but orbiting Earth, and this gives the illusion that the faint asteroid is swimming along a curved trajectory. The uncharted asteroid is inside the asteroid belt in our Solar System, and hence is 10 trillion times closer to Hubble than the background galaxy.
Rather than being a nuisance, this type of data is useful to astronomers for doing a census of the asteroid population in our Solar System.
Credit: NASA, ESA, P. G. Martín (Autonomous University of Madrid), J. DePasquale (STScI).
Acknowledgment: A. Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley)

Volunteers from around the world known as ‘citizen scientists’ contributed to the identification of this asteroid bounty. Professional scientists combined the volunteers’ efforts with machine learning algorithms to identify the asteroids. This represents a new approach to finding asteroids in astronomical archives spanning decades, and it may be effectively applied to other datasets, say the researchers.

“We are getting deeper into seeing the smaller population of main-belt asteroids. We were surprised to see such a large number of candidate objects,” said lead author Pablo García Martín of the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. “There was some hint that this population existed, but now we are confirming it with a random asteroid population sample obtained using the whole Hubble archive. This is important for providing insights into the evolutionary models of our Solar System.”

The large, random sample offers new insights into the formation and evolution of the asteroid belt. Finding a lot of small asteroids favours the idea that they are fragments of larger asteroids that have collided and broken apart, like smashed pottery. This is a grinding-down process spanning billions of years.

This graph plots the size of asteroids versus their abundance, based on a Hubble Space Telescope archival survey that found 1701 mostly previously undetected asteroids lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The vertical axis lists the number of objects from zero to 70. The horizontal axis lists size, from zero kilometres on the left, to 2 kilometres on the right. The graph slopes up such that the most abundant asteroids detected by Hubble in the survey are 0.5 kilometres across in size.
This graph is based on Hubble Space Telescope archival data that were used to identify a largely unseen population of very small asteroids. The asteroids were not the intended targets, but instead photobombed background stars and galaxies in Hubble images. The comprehensive treasure hunt required perusing 37 000 Hubble images spanning 19 years. This was accomplished by using ‘citizen science’ volunteers and artificial intelligence algorithms. The payoff was finding 1701 trails of previously undetected asteroids.
Credit: NASA, ESA, P. G. Martín (Autonomous University of Madrid), E. Wheatley (STScI)

An alternative theory for the existence of smaller fragments is that they formed that way billions of years ago. But there is no conceivable mechanism that would keep them from snowballing up to larger sizes as they agglomerate dust from the planet-forming circumstellar disc around our Sun. “Collisions would have a certain signature that we can use to test the current main belt population,” said co-author Bruno Merín of the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid, Spain.

Because of Hubble’s fast orbit around Earth, it can capture wandering asteroids through their telltale trails in the Hubble exposures. As viewed from an Earth-based telescope, an asteroid leaves a streak across the picture. Asteroids ‘photobomb’ Hubble exposures by appearing as unmistakable, curved trails in Hubble photographs.

As Hubble moves around Earth, it changes its point of view while observing an asteroid, which also moves along its own orbit. By knowing Hubble’s position during the observation and measuring the curvature of the streaks, scientists can determine the distances to the asteroids and estimate the shapes of their orbits.

The asteroids snagged mostly dwell in the main belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Their brightness is measured by Hubble’s sensitive cameras, and comparing their brightness to their distance allows for a size estimate. The faintest asteroids in the survey are roughly one forty-millionth the brightness of the faintest star that can be seen by the human eye.

“Asteroid positions change with time, and therefore you cannot find them just by entering coordinates, because at different times they might not be there,” said Merín. “As astronomers we don’t have time to go looking through all the asteroid images. So we got the idea to collaborate with more than 10 000 citizen-science volunteers to peruse the huge Hubble archives.”

In 2019 an international group of astronomers launched the Hubble Asteroid Hunter, a citizen-science project to identify asteroids in archival Hubble data. The initiative was developed by researchers and engineers at the European Science and Technology Centre (ESTEC) and the European Space Astronomy Centre’s science data centre (ESDC), in collaboration with the Zooniverse platform, the world’s largest and most popular citizen-science platform, and Google.

A total of 11 482 citizen-science volunteers, who provided nearly two million identifications, were then given a training set for an automated algorithm to identify asteroids based on artificial intelligence. This pioneering approach may be effectively applied to other datasets.

The project will next explore the streaks of previously unknown asteroids to characterise their orbits and study their properties, such as rotation periods. Because most of these asteroid streaks were captured by Hubble many years ago, it is not possible to follow them up now to determine their orbits.

The findings are published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

This is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the barred spiral galaxy UGC 12158. The majestic galaxy has a pinwheel shape made up of bright blue stars wound around a yellow-white hub of central stars. The hub has a slash of stars across it, called a bar. The galaxy is tilted face-on to our view from Earth. A slightly S-shaped white line across the top is the Hubble image of an asteroid streaking across Hubble’s view. It looks dashed because the image is a combination of several exposures of the asteroid flying by like a race car.
This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the barred spiral galaxy UGC 12158 looks like someone took a white marking pen to it. In reality it is a combination of time exposures of a foreground asteroid moving through Hubble’s field of view, photobombing the observation of the galaxy. Several exposures of the galaxy were taken, which is evidenced by the dashed pattern.
The asteroid appears as a curved trail as a result of parallax: Hubble is not stationary, but orbiting Earth, and this gives the illusion that the faint asteroid is swimming along a curved trajectory. The uncharted asteroid is inside the asteroid belt in our Solar System, and hence is 10 trillion times closer to Hubble than the background galaxy.
Rather than being a nuisance, this type of data is useful to astronomers for doing a census of the asteroid population in our Solar System.
Credit: NASA, ESA, P. G. Martín (Autonomous University of Madrid), J. DePasquale (STScI).
Acknowledgment: A. Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley)

Press release from ESA Hubble

Webb probes Messier 82 (M82), an extreme starburst galaxy

Amid a galaxy teeming with new and young stars lies an intricate substructure

Left: Messier 82 as imaged by Hubble. Hour-glass-shaped red plumes of gas are shooting outward from above and below a bright blue, disc-shaped centre of a galaxy. This galaxy is surrounded by many white stars and set against the black background of space. Right: A section of Messier 82 as imaged by Webb. An edge-on spiral starburst galaxy with a bright white, glowing core set against the black background of space. A white band of the edge-on disc extends from lower left to upper right. Dark brown tendrils of dust are scattered thinly along this band. Many clumpy, red filaments extend vertically above and below the plane of the galaxy.
Annotated image of the starburst galaxy Messier 82 captured by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument, with compass arrows, a scale bar, and colour key for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image on the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east on the sky (as seen from below) is flipped relative to direction arrows on a map of the ground (as seen from above).
The scale bar is labelled in light-years.
This image shows invisible near-infrared wavelengths of light that have been translated into visible-light colours. The colour key shows which NIRCam filters were used when collecting the light. The colour of each filter name is the visible light colour used to represent the infrared light that passes through that filter.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has set its sights on the starburst galaxy Messier 82 (M82), a small but mighty environment that features rapid star formation. By looking closer with Webb’s sensitive infrared capabilities, a team of scientists is getting to the very core of the galaxy, gaining a better understanding of how it is forming stars and how this extreme activity is affecting the galaxy as a whole.

An international team of astronomers has used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to survey the starburst galaxy Messier 82 (M82). Located 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, this galaxy is relatively compact in size but hosts a frenzy of star formation activity. For comparison, M82 is sprouting new stars 10 times faster than the Milky Way galaxy.

The team directed Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument toward the starburst galaxy’s centre, obtaining a closer look at the physical conditions that foster the formation of new stars.

“M82 has garnered a variety of observations over the years because it can be considered as the prototypical starburst galaxy,” said Alberto Bolatto, lead author of the study. “Both Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have observed this target. With Webb’s size and resolution, we can look at this star-forming galaxy and see all of this beautiful new detail.”

Star formation continues to maintain a sense of mystery because it is shrouded by curtains of dust and gas, creating an obstacle to observing this process. Fortunately, Webb’s ability to peer in the infrared is an asset in navigating these murky conditions. Additionally, these NIRCam images of the very centre of the starburst were obtained using an instrument mode that prevented the very bright source from overwhelming the detector.

An edge-on spiral starburst galaxy with a bright white, glowing core set against the black background of space. A white band of the edge-on disc extends from lower left to upper right. Dark brown tendrils of dust are scattered thinly along this band. Many white points in various sizes — stars or star clusters — are scattered throughout the image, but are most heavily concentrated toward the centre. Many clumpy, red filaments extend vertically above and below the plane of the galaxy.
Astronomers used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to look toward M82’s centre, where a galactic wind is being launched as a result of rapid star formation and subsequent supernovae. Studying the galactic wind can offer insight into how the loss of gas shapes the future growth of the galaxy.
This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows M82’s galactic wind via emission from sooty chemical molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are very small dust grains that survive in cooler temperatures but are destroyed in hot conditions. The structure of the emission resembles that of hot, ionised gas, suggesting PAHs may be replenished by continued ionisation of molecular gas.
In this image, light at 3.35 microns is coloured red, 2.50 microns is green, and 1.64 microns is blue (filters F335M, F250M, and F164N, respectively).
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)

While dark brown tendrils of dust are threaded throughout M82’s glowing white core even in this infrared view, Webb’s NIRCam has revealed a level of detail that has historically been obscured. Looking closer toward the centre, small specks depicted in green denote concentrated areas of iron, most of which are supernova remnants. Small patches that appear red signify regions where molecular hydrogen is being lit up by the radiation from a nearby young star.

“This image shows the power of Webb,” said Rebecca Levy, second author of the study, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Every single white dot in this image is either a star or a star cluster. We can start to distinguish all of these tiny point sources, which enables us to acquire an accurate count of all the star clusters in this galaxy.”

Looking at M82 in slightly longer infrared wavelengths, clumpy tendrils represented in red can be seen extending above and below the plane of the galaxy. These gaseous streamers are a galactic wind rushing out from the core of the starburst.

One area of focus for this research team was understanding how this galactic wind, which is caused by the rapid rate of star formation and subsequent supernovae, is being launched and influencing its surrounding environment. By resolving a central section of M82, scientists have been able to examine where the wind originates, and gain insight into how hot and cold components interact within the wind.

A section of M82 as imaged by Webb. An edge-on spiral starburst galaxy with a bright white, glowing core set against the black background of space. Dark brown tendrils of dust are scattered heavily toward the galaxy’s centre. Many white points in various sizes — stars or star clusters — are scattered throughout the image, but are most heavily concentrated toward the centre.
A team of astronomers used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to survey the starburst galaxy Messier 82 (M82), which is located 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. M82 hosts a frenzy of star formation, sprouting new stars 10 times faster than the Milky Way galaxy. Webb’s infrared capabilities enabled scientists to peer through curtains of dust and gas that have historically obscured the star formation process.
This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows the centre of M82 with an unprecedented level of detail. With Webb’s resolution, astronomers can distinguish small, bright compact sources that are either individual stars or star clusters. Obtaining an accurate count of the stars and clusters that compose M82’s centre can help astronomers understand the different phases of star formation and the timelines for each stage.
In this image, light at 2.12 microns is coloured red, 1.64 microns is green, and 1.40 microns is blue (filters F212N, 164N, and F140M, respectively).
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)

Webb’s NIRCam instrument was well suited to tracing the structure of the galactic wind via emission from sooty chemical molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs can be considered as very small dust grains that survive in cooler temperatures but are destroyed in hot conditions.

Much to the team’s surprise, Webb’s view of the PAH emission highlights the galactic wind’s fine structure — an aspect previously unknown. Depicted as red filaments, the emission extends away from the central region where the heart of star formation is located. Another unanticipated find was the similarity between the structure of the PAH emission and that of the hot, ionised gas.

“It was unexpected to see the PAH emission resemble ionised gas,” said Bolatto. “PAHs are not supposed to live very long when exposed to such a strong radiation field, so perhaps they are being replenished all the time. It challenges our theories and shows us that further investigation is required.”

Webb’s observations of M82 in near-infrared light also spur further questions about star formation, some of which the team hopes to answer with additional data gathered with Webb, including that of another starburst galaxy. Two other papers from this team characterising the stellar clusters and correlations among wind components of M82 are almost finalised.

Left: Messier 82 as imaged by Hubble. Hour-glass-shaped red plumes of gas are shooting outward from above and below a bright blue, disc-shaped centre of a galaxy. This galaxy is surrounded by many white stars and set against the black background of space. Right: A section of Messier 82 as imaged by Webb. An edge-on spiral starburst galaxy with a bright white, glowing core set against the black background of space. A white band of the edge-on disc extends from lower left to upper right. Dark brown tendrils of dust are scattered thinly along this band. Many clumpy, red filaments extend vertically above and below the plane of the galaxy.
The starburst galaxy M82 was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 2006, which showed the galaxy’s edge-on spiral disc, shredded clouds, and hot hydrogen gas. The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has observed M82’s core, capturing in unprecedented detail the structure of the galactic wind and characterising individual stars and star clusters.
The Webb image is from the telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument. The red filaments trace the shape of the cool component of the galactic wind via polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are very small dust grains that survive in cooler temperatures but are destroyed in hot conditions. The structure of the emission is similar to that of the ionised gas, suggesting PAHs may be replenished from cooler molecular material as it is ionised.
Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)

In the near future, the team will have spectroscopic observations of M82 from Webb ready for their analysis, as well as complementary large-scale images of the galaxy and its wind. Spectral data will help astronomers determine accurate ages for the star clusters and provide a sense of how long each phase of star formation lasts in a starburst galaxy environment. On a broader scale, inspecting the activity in galaxies like M82 can deepen astronomers’ understanding of the early Universe.

“With these amazing Webb images, and our upcoming spectra, we can study how exactly the strong winds and shock fronts from young stars and supernovae can remove the very gas and dust from which new stars are forming,” said Torsten Böker of the European Space Agency, a co-author of the study. “A detailed understanding of this ‘feedback’ cycle is important for theories of how the early Universe evolved, because compact starbursts such as the one in M82 were very common at high redshift.”

These findings have been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

 

Press release from ESA Webb.

Hubble sees FS Tau B, likely in the process of becoming a T Tauri star

Jets emerge from the cocoon of a newly forming star to blast across space, slicing through the gas and dust of a shining nebula, in this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

A bright point of light shines near center-right with diffraction spikes, surrounded by glowing clouds against black space. A blue jet of material extends roughly throughout the center of the image, partially obscured by the clouds.
FS Tau is a multi-star system made up of FS Tau A, the bright star-like object near the middle of the image, and FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B), the bright object to the far right that is partially obscured by a dark, vertical lane of dust. The young objects are surrounded by softly illuminated gas and dust of this stellar nursery. The system is only about 2.8 million years old, very young for a star system. Our Sun, by contrast, is about 4.6 billion years old.
FS Tau B is a newly forming star, or protostar, and is surrounded by a protoplanetary disc, a pancake-shaped collection of dust and gas leftover from the formation of the star that will eventually coalesce into planets. The thick dust lane, seen nearly edge-on, separates what are thought to be the illuminated surfaces of the disc.
FS Tau B is likely in the process of becoming a T Tauri star, a type of young variable star that hasn’t begun nuclear fusion yet but is beginning to evolve into a hydrogen-fueled star similar to our Sun. Protostars shine with the heat energy released as the gas clouds from which they are forming collapse, and from the accretion of material from nearby gas and dust. Variable stars are a class of star whose brightness changes noticeably over time.
FS Tau A is itself a T Tauri binary system, consisting of two stars orbiting each other.
Protostars are known to eject fast-moving, column-like streams of energised material called jets, and FS Tau B provides a striking example of this phenomenon. The protostar is the source of an unusual asymmetric, double-sided jet, visible here in blue. Its asymmetrical structure may be because mass is being expelled from the object at different rates.
FS Tau B is also classified as a Herbig-Haro object. Herbig–Haro objects form when jets of ionised gas ejected by a young star collide with nearby clouds of gas and dust at high speeds, creating bright patches of nebulosity.
FS Tau is part of the Taurus-Auriga region, a collection of dark molecular clouds that are home to numerous newly forming and young stars, roughly 450 light-years away in the constellations of Taurus and Auriga. Hubble has previously observed this region, whose star-forming activity makes it a compelling target for astronomers. Hubble made these observations as part of an investigation of edge-on dust discs around young stellar objects.
Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Stapelfeldt (NASA JPL), G. Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

FS Tau is a multi-star system made up of FS Tau A, the bright star-like object near the middle of the image, and FS Tau B (Haro 6-5B), the bright object to the far right that is partially obscured by a dark, vertical lane of dust. These young objects are surrounded by the softly illuminated gas and dust of this stellar nursery. The system is only about 2.8 million years old, very young for a star system. Our Sun, by contrast, is about 4.6 billion years old.

FS Tau B is a newly forming star, or protostar, and is surrounded by a protoplanetary disc, a pancake-shaped collection of dust and gas left over from the formation of the star that will eventually coalesce into planets. The thick dust lane, seen nearly edge-on, separates what are thought to be the illuminated surfaces of the disc.

FS Tau B is likely in the process of becoming a T Tauri star, a type of young variable star that hasn’t begun nuclear fusion yet but is beginning to evolve into a hydrogen-fueled star similar to our Sun. Protostars shine with the heat energy released as the gas clouds from which they are forming collapse, and from the accretion of material from nearby gas and dust. Variable stars are a class of star whose brightness changes noticeably over time.

FS Tau A is itself a T Tauri binary system, consisting of two stars orbiting each other.

Protostars are known to eject fast-moving, column-like streams of energised material called jets, and FS Tau B provides a striking example of this phenomenon. The protostar is the source of an unusual asymmetric, double-sided jet, visible here in blue. Its asymmetrical structure may be because mass is being expelled from the object at different rates.

FS Tau B is also classified as a Herbig-Haro object. Herbig–Haro objects form when jets of ionised gas ejected by a young star collide with nearby clouds of gas and dust at high speeds, creating bright patches of nebulosity.

FS Tau is part of the Taurus-Auriga region, a collection of dark molecular clouds that are home to numerous newly forming and young stars, roughly 450 light-years away in the constellations of Taurus and Auriga. Hubble has previously observed this region, whose star-forming activity makes it a compelling target for astronomers. Hubble made these observations as part of an investigation of edge-on dust discs around young stellar objects.

Press release from ESA Hubble.