Tarantula Nebula image produced by James Webb Telescope

September 6, 2022

James Webb Telescope has released a dramatic new image of the star-forming region 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula because of its glowing filaments resembling spider legs. Located at a distance of 170,000 light years away from earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our neighboring galaxies, the Tarantula Nebula is the brightest known nebula in the Local Group of galaxies. It is around 650 light-years across and most active star-forming region known in our group of galaxies, containing numerous clouds of dust and gas and two bright star clusters. At the center of 30 Doradus, thousands of massive stars are blowing off material and producing intense radiation along with powerful winds. The Chandra X-ray Observatory detects gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by these stellar winds and also by supernova explosions..

Astronomers focused three of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments on the Tarantula. Viewed with Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), 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.

In this mosaic picture extending 340 light-years across, Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) shows the Tarantula Nebula star birth action in another light, including a huge number of never-before-seen juvenile stars that were recently covered in cosmic clouds. The most dynamic area seems to shimmer with enormous youthful stars, appearing light blue. Dissipated among them are still-embedded stars, seeming red, yet to rise up out of the dusty case of the cloud. NIRCam can identify these hidden stars thanks to its state-of-the-art resolution at near-infrared wavelengths.

To the upper left of the cluster of young stars, and the top of the nebula’s cavity, an older star prominently displays NIRCam’s distinctive eight diffraction spikes, an artifact of the telescope’s structure. Following the top central spike of this star upward, it almost points to a distinctive bubble in the cloud. Young stars still surrounded by dusty material are blowing this bubble, beginning to carve out their own cavity. Astronomers used two of Webb’s spectrographs to take a closer look at this region and determine the chemical makeup of the star and its surrounding gas. This spectral information will tell astronomers about the age of the nebula and how many generations of star birth it has seen.

Farther from the core region of hot young stars, cooler gas takes on a rust color, telling astronomers that the nebula is rich with complex hydrocarbons. This dense gas is the material that will form future stars. As winds from the massive stars sweep away gas and dust, some of it will pile up and, with gravity’s help, form new stars.

Credit - NASA