Astronomers Capture Best Ever Image of Carina Nebula’s Western Wall

Astronomers Capture Best Ever Image of Carina Nebula’s Western Wall

Astronomers using twin 8.1-m telescopes at Gemini Observatory in Chile have captured the most detailed near-infrared image yet of the Carina Nebula’s western wall, the well-defined edge of the nebula.

A 5-light-year-long section of the western wall in the Carina Nebula, as observed with adaptive optics on the Gemini South telescope. This mountainous section of the nebula reveals a number of unusual structures including a long series of parallel ridges that could be produced by a magnetic field, a remarkable almost perfectly smooth wave, and fragments that appear to be in the process of being sheared off the cloud by a strong wind. There is also evidence for a jet of material ejected from a newly-formed star. The exquisite detail seen in the image is in part due to a technology known as adaptive optics, which resulted in a ten-fold improvement in the resolution of the research team’s observations. Image credit: International Gemini Observatory / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / Patrick Hartigan, Rice University / Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage / Mahdi Zamani / Davide de Martin.

The Carina Nebula, also known as NGC 3372 and Caldwell 92, is located an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the constellation of Carina.

Discovered in the 1750s by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, the nebula is a dynamic, evolving cloud of thinly spread interstellar gas and dust.

The massive stars in its interior emit intense radiation that causes the surrounding gas to glow. By contrast, other regions contain dark pillars of dust cloaking newborn stars.

Spanning over 300 light-years, the nebula is one of the Milky Way Galaxy’s largest star-forming regions and is easily visible to the unaided eye under dark skies.

“Star-forming regions are shrouded in dust but it is possible to see through the shroud of dust by observing in infrared light,” said Rice University astronomer Patrick Hartigan and colleagues.

The researchers used the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager, a near-infrared adaptive optics camera, to peer through the outer layers of dust to reveal a huge wall of dust and gas glowing with the intense ultraviolet light from nearby massive young stars.

This region is a great example of such a wall and this image provides a very clear view of a star-forming region in the near-infrared.

With a resolution 10 times higher than it would be without adaptive optics from the ground, the image reveals a wealth of detail never observed before.

“The results are stunning,” Dr. Hartigan said.

“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.”

There is also evidence for a jet of material ejected from a newly-formed star.

The image provides the sharpest view to date of how massive young stars affect their surroundings and influence how star and planet formation proceeds.

“It is possible that the Sun formed in such an environment,” Dr. Hartigan said.

“If so, radiation and winds from any nearby massive stars would have affected the masses and atmospheres of the Solar System’s outer planets.”

A paper on the findings was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Patrick Hartigan et al. 2020. A JWST Preview: Adaptive-optics Images of H2, Br-γ, and K-continuum in Carina’s Western Wall. ApJL 902, L1; doi: 10.3847/2041-8213/abac08

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