Astronomers Release Incredibly Sharp Image Of The Carina Nebula

A 50-trillion-km (33-trillion-mile or 5 light-year) long section Carina Nebula in near-infrared. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/Patrick Hartigan (Rice University), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

Astronomers have released an incredible infrared image of the Carina Nebula at a level of sharpness unseen for a ground-based telescope. The image, taken by the Gemini South telescope in Chile, is of the West Wall of the Nebula at a resolution expected to be achieved by the James Webb Space Telescope when it eventually launches. 

As reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the incredible series of observations were possible thanks to adaptive optics. This technique allows astronomers to reduce the effects of the turbulence of the atmosphere, improving the image resolution by about 10 times. The final product allows us to peer through the clouds of the nebula like never before. 

“The results are stunning,” lead author Patrick Hartigan, from Rice University, said in a statement. “We see a wealth of detail never observed before along the edge of the cloud, including a long series of parallel ridges that may be produced by a magnetic field, a remarkable almost perfectly smooth sine wave and fragments at the top that appear to be in the process of being sheared off the cloud by a strong wind.”

Comparison between observation with or without adaptive optics. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/Patrick Hartigan (Rice University), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Mahdi Zamani & Davide de Martin

This approach not only shows the capabilities of the latest ground-based astronomy, but it also provides precious insight into the formation of stars. The Carina Nebula is located over 7,500 light-years from Earth and is one of the most famous stellar nurseries.

Researchers report the discovery of a number of unusual structures among the gas and dust, including parallel ridges possibly produced by the magnetic field of baby stars. There is also a jet of material ejected by a star that is visible, a remarkably smooth wave, and clouds being ripped apart by the intense ultraviolet light of baby stars. The image also helps to reveal how massive young stars can influence what's around them.

“It is possible that the Sun formed in such an environment,” said Hartigan in a statement. “If so, radiation and winds from any nearby massive stars would have affected the masses and atmospheres of the Solar System’s outer planets.”

There are many unknowns about the formation of planetary systems. Observations such as these will hopefully shine a light on these topics.

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