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Webb’s infrared view of the Tarantula Nebula

Two views of the Tarantula Nebula by Webb
Click for original image.

The two images to the right, reduced and annotated to post here, were released today by the science team of the James Webb Space Telescope, and show two different views of the Tarantula Nebula, located 161,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

It is home to the hottest, most massive stars known. Astronomers focused three of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments on the Tarantula. Viewed with Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) [top], the region resembles a burrowing tarantula’s home, lined with its silk. The nebula’s cavity centered in the NIRCam image has been hollowed out by blistering radiation from a cluster of massive young stars, which sparkle pale blue in the image. Only the densest surrounding areas of the nebula resist erosion by these stars’ powerful stellar winds, forming pillars that appear to point back toward the cluster. These pillars contain forming protostars, which will eventually emerge from their dusty cocoons and take their turn shaping the nebula.

…The region takes on a different appearance when viewed in the longer infrared wavelengths detected by Webb’s Mid-infrared Instrument (MIRI) [bottom]. The hot stars fade, and the cooler gas and dust glow. Within the stellar nursery clouds, points of light indicate embedded protostars, still gaining mass. While shorter wavelengths of light are absorbed or scattered by dust grains in the nebula, and therefore never reach Webb to be detected, longer mid-infrared wavelengths penetrate that dust, ultimately revealing a previously unseen cosmic environment.

As with all images from Webb, these are false color, as the telescope views the infrared heat produced by stars and galaxies and interstellar clouds, not the optical light our eyes see. Thus, the scientists assign different colors to the range of wavelengths each instrument on Webb captures.

These photos once again illustrate Webb’s value. It will provide a new layer of data to supplement the basic visual information provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing scientists to better understand the puzzles we see in the optical.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • Andi

    Minor edit in first paragraph: “two different views”

  • GaryMike

    The rest of us cannot possibly interpret the images in a meaningful way without a wavelength vs.assigned color/interpreted physical process scorecard.

    Not in the budget? No need for the curtain to be opened.

    Who are taxpayers to care?

    Don’t let the curtain be opened.

    There are papers to be written for professional credit.

  • GaryMike: The press release describes in very good detail the different meanings of the colors. If you really want to find out, I guarantee that a little bit of searching on the web will find this info. They are not keeping it secret, in the slightest.

    You know I have little trust or love of government. You know I considered Webb an overpriced boondoggle. But I don’t assume everything done by the government is automatically evil. When it comes to these NASA projects, NASA is legally required to make the data available, and does so. You simply have to look for it.

  • GaryMike


    “They are not keeping it secret, in the slightest.”

    I’m busy. The information should have been given up front so I don’t have to do “a little bit of searching ”

    Having been a teacher in an earlier professional life, I never told my students to “do my job for me”.

  • Edward

    I hope you taught your students how to do their own research, as this is how we get lifelong learning, as opposed to the standard amount of school learning, five-hours a day of stuff that (at the time) we find uninteresting. Once we are out of school, we get to research the stuff that interests us. We may even think that it interests other people enough that we turn that research into a book or two (the royalties almost coming close to nearly being worth the time spent).

    I’m not sure how much interpretation the rest of us are supposed to do. We pay the principal investigator and his team to do this. It seems to me that the importance of these two photographs is for us to understand that the different wavelengths present us with different information, explaining why we want telescopes that see in more than just visible light.

    The Hubble telescope originally cost us three times its intended price, but after the scheduled maintenance and upgrades, we are getting science from it that costs reasonably close to the intended price. It is a good thing that Webb is giving us all this information. Each of its photographs costs us about ten times what we had intended (assuming it lasts its intended lifespan), plus it cost us the science that was lost due to the cost overruns (lost opportunity costs). For Webb’s premium price, we should expect premium science.

  • GaryMike


    My beef is not with the principle investigator(s). They have one-year proprietary periods allowing them time to publish their discoveries free of opportunistic piracy.

    My beef is with folks who treat stuff like art open to interpretation more than education that gets to the point.

  • “For Webb’s premium price, we should expect premium science.”

    That made me laugh. I maintain that humor is based on pain, and the Webb cost is painful, indeed. However, despite the armchair-quarterbacking many (ahem) engaged in, I am very pleased to see the machine functioning in a nominal capacity. There are those random rock strikes, though . . .

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