Western Space scientist set to explore massive stars with NASA’s Webb Telescope

In a nearby stellar nursery called the Orion Nebula, young, massive stars are blasting far-ultraviolet light at the cloud of dust and gas from which they were born. This intense flood of radiation is violently disrupting the cloud by breaking apart molecules, ionizing atoms and molecules by stripping their electrons, and heating the gas and dust.

An international team, including Els Peeters from Western University’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, will use NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch in October 2021) to study a portion of the radiated cloud called the Orion Bar to learn more about the influence massive stars have on their environments, and even on the formation of our own solar system.

orion bar

The Orion Bar is a diagonal, ridge-like feature of gas and dust in the lower left quadrant of this image of the Orion Nebula.

“The fact that massive stars shape the structure of galaxies through their explosions as supernovas has been known for a long time. But what people have discovered more recently is that massive stars also influence their environments not only as supernovas, but through their winds and radiation during their lives,” said one of the team’s principal investigators, Olivier Berné, a research scientist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Toulouse.

While it might sound like a Friday-night watering hole, the Orion Bar is actually a ridge-like feature of gas and dust within the spectacular Orion Nebula. A little more than 1,300 light-years away, this nebula is the nearest region of massive star formation to the Sun.

The Orion Bar is sculpted by the intense radiation from nearby, hot, young stars, and at first glance appears to be shaped like a bar. It is a ‘photodissociation region,’ or PDR, where ultraviolet light from young, massive stars creates a mostly neutral, but warm, area of gas and dust between the fully ionized 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.

PDRs occur where interstellar gas is dense and cold enough to remain neutral, but not dense enough to prevent the penetration of far-ultraviolet light from massive stars. Emissions from these regions provide a unique tool to study the physical and chemical processes that are important for most of the mass between and around stars. The processes of radiation and cloud disruption 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.

Els Peeters

Els Peeters

“The Orion Bar is probably the prototype of a PDR,” said Els Peeters, a Western astronomy professor and member of the SETI Institute. “It’s been studied extensively, so it’s well characterized. It’s very close by, and it’s really seen edge on. That means you can probe the different transition regions. And since it’s close by, this transition from one region to another is spatially distinct if you have a telescope with high spatial resolution.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory when it launches in 2021. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

For more details, including images and maps, on this international collaboration and the James Webb Space Telescope, read here.

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