Patches of stardust. The gleam of distant galaxies. Gaseous swirls in colors rich enough to paint a renaissance tableau. In the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) latest image drop, we get a peek at the Tarantula Nebula as never seen before, and the images are mesmerizing. 

Related: Webb photographs what may be the universe’s oldest galaxy

About the Tarantula Nebula

Formally known as 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula is a frequent object of study for astronomers focused on star formation. At 161,000 light-years away, it is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy. The name alludes not to the spider itself but rather to its resemblance to the silk-lined burrow.

The region is home to plenty of young and still-forming stars, many of which the JWST has just revealed for the first time. The JWST team notes that the Tarantula Nebula is the largest, brightest star-forming region in the Local Group, which consists of the Milky Way’s closest neighbors. The hottest, largest stars known exist here. 

webb tarantula nebula
“A side-by-side display of the same region of the Tarantula Nebula brings out the distinctions between Webb’s near-infrared (closer to visible red, left) and mid-infrared (further from visible red, right) images. Each portion of the electromagnetic spectrum reveals and conceals different features, making data in different wavelengths valuable to astronomers for understanding the physics taking place.” IMAGE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

“A range of Webb’s high-resolution infrared instruments, working together, reveal the stars, structure, and composition of the nebula with a level of detail not previously possible,” the JWST website shares. “Astronomers will use Webb throughout its mission to gain insight into star formation and the stellar life cycle, the implications of which extend to our own star, the Sun, as well as the formation of the heavy chemical elements that are integral to life as we know it.”

Related: Webb’s latest ‘photo’ is actually chorizo

What the images of the Tarantula Nebula show

The JWST employed its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to capture images of the Tarantula Nebula. Using the NIRCam, the JWST catches an otherwise unseen moment: a young star emerging. 

“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,” the JWST team explains. “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.”

webb tarantula nebula
“At the longer wavelengths of light captured by its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), Webb focuses on the area surrounding the central star cluster and unveils a very different view of the Tarantula Nebula. In this light, the young hot stars of the cluster fade in brilliance, and glowing gas and dust come forward. Abundant hydrocarbons light up the surfaces of the dust clouds, shown in blue and purple. Much of the nebula takes on a more ghostly, diffuse appearance because mid-infrared light is able to show more of what is happening deeper inside the clouds.” IMAGE: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

What’s so important about the Tarantula Nebula?

30 Doradus is distinct in that it shares a similar chemical composition with early gigantic star-forming regions at the beginning of the cosmos. The Milky Way doesn’t see star production at nearly the same rate as the Tarantula Nebula, and the chemical makeup isn’t similar, either. 30 Doradus is a fine example of what it would have been like way back when.

“Webb will provide astronomers the opportunity to compare and contrast observations of star formation in the Tarantula Nebula with the telescope’s deep observations of distant galaxies from the actual era of cosmic noon,” JWST notes.