Webb’s Spectacular and Beautiful Views of the Crab Nebula and M83

James Webb Space Telescope Crab Nebula and Messier 83 images

It has been a busy week for the James Webb Space Telescope. Fresh images of the Crab Nebula and the Messier 83 spiral galaxy have been shared, showcasing incredible new views of the cosmos.

The Crab Nebula Is a Nearby Supernova Remnant That Confounds and Enchants

Webb used its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to gaze at the Crab Nebula in hopes of understanding the origins of the supernova remnant. With Webb’s incredible infrared imaging capabilities, scientists have uncovered new details that have never been seen.

James Webb Space Telescope Crab Nebula
“This image by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) reveals new details in infrared light. The supernova remnant is comprised of several different components, including doubly ionized sulfur (represented in red-orange), ionized iron (blue), dust (yellow-white and green), and synchrotron emission (white). In this image, colors were assigned to different filters from Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI: blue (F162M), light blue (F480M), cyan (F560W), green (F1130W), orange (F1800W), and red (F2100W).” | Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University).

Compared to Hubble’s optical wavelength image released in 2005, Webb’s infrared and near-infrared views show a similar basic structure — “a crisp, cage-like structure of fluffy red-orange filaments and knots of dust” around the object’s central area, per the European Space Agency (ESA) — but Webb’s advanced instruments expose more of what is known as synchrotron emission.

Visible in Webb’s image as the milky, smokey area throughout the Crab Nebula’s interior, synchrotron emission is generated by “particles accelerated to extremely high speeds as they wind around magnetic field lines,” ESA explains. Synchrotron radiation is emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum, but Webb’s sensitivity and resolution make it exceptionally detailed and visible.

James Webb Space Telescope Crab Nebula
This comparison shows Hubble’s 2005 optical observation of the Crab Nebula (left) versus Webb’s new image (right). | Credits: Hubble Image: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (Arizona State University); Webb Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, T. Temim (Princeton University).

The radiation is a product of the nebula’s pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star. “The pulsar’s strong magnetic field accelerates particles to extremely high speeds and causes them to emit radiation as they wind around magnetic field lines,” explains NASA.

The Crab Nebula is located just 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Taurus, making it a relatively nearby cosmic object. The supernova event was seen and recorded by 11th-century astronomers, although the precise nature of the event remains mysterious. That said, Webb’s resolution helps scientists pick up critical new details.

“Webb’s sensitivity and spatial resolution allow us to accurately determine the composition of the ejected material, particularly the content of iron and nickel, which may reveal what type of explosion produced the Crab Nebula,” explains Tea Temim, research astronomer from Princeton University.

M83 Offers a Visual Treat

Webb’s NIRCam and MIRI instruments also looked at Messier 83, a barred spiral galaxy located about 15 million light-years away in the constellation borders of Hydra and Centaurus. Discovered in 1752 by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille, M83 is massive, nearly 120,000 light-years in size.

Webb has imaged M83 as part of the series of observations called Feedback in Emerging extragalactic Star clusTers, or FEAST. Images of another target of the FEAST observations, M51, were also shared recently.

James Webb Space Telescope M83
“In this image, the bright red-pink spots correspond to regions rich in ionised hydrogen, which is due to the presence of newly formed stars. The diffuse gradient of blue light around the central region shows the distribution of older stars. The compact light blue regions within the red, ionised gas, mostly concentrated in the spiral arms, show the distribution of young star clusters.” | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team
James Webb Space Telescope M83
“This image was compiled using data collected through just two of MIRI’s ten filters, near the short end of the instrument’s wavelength range. The result is this extraordinarily detailed image, with its creeping tendrils of gas, dust and stars. In this image, the bright blue shows the distribution of stars across the central part of the galaxy. The bright yellow regions that weave through the spiral arms indicate concentrations of active stellar nurseries, where new stars are forming. The orange-red areas indicate the distribution of a type of carbon-based compound known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs) — the F770W filter, one of the two used here, is particularly suited to imaging these important molecules.” | Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, A. Adamo (Stockholm University) and the FEAST JWST team

What will Webb look at next, and what will the long-term impacts of the mission be on humanity’s understanding of the universe? Only time will tell.