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James Webb telescope reveals fiery 'mane' of the Horsehead Nebula in spectacular new images

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The James Webb Space Telescope has captured the sharpest images yet of the Horsehead Nebula — a vast cloud of equine-looking gas rearing over the constellation Orion. 

Earning its name from the thick plumes of rolling gas that constitute its fiery mane, the Horsehead Nebula is a stream of gas rising from Orion B, a molecular cloud located 1,300 light-years from Earth.

Made from a collapsing cloud of gas and dust, the nebula gets its distinctive appearance from its slow dissipation as its outer edges gradually erode. In roughly 5 million years time, the gas will have disintegrated entirely, leaving behind the hot star that illuminates it from the top left edge. 

To snap the stunning images, astronomers used the JWST's Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). True to their names, these cameras capture photons emitted in the infrared spectrum of light as regions of the gas cloud are heated up by young massive stars. 

An uncropped image of the Horsehead Nebula. (Image credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, K. Misselt (University of Arizona) and Abergel (IAS/University Paris-Saclay, CNRS))

Related: 35 jaw-dropping James Webb Space Telescope images

Studying this region, known as a photon-dominated region (PDR), helps scientists to understand the chemical and physical processes that enable interstellar matter to evolve and for stars to form.

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Given its close proximity to Earth and distinctive shape, the Horsehead Nebula is considered one of the best objects in the sky to study how radiation and stellar matter interact, according to the European Space Agency (ESA). 

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