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Al-Khaled Abdulrazzaq Al-Khaled
Al-Khaled Abdulrazzaq Al-Khaled

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NASA’s James Webb telescope has captured the most detailed infrared images ever taken of the Horsehead Nebula, one of the most majestic and recognizable objects in the night sky, the space agency said Monday. The new observations show the top of the “horse’s mane,” revealing for the first time the small scale structures on the edge of the giant cloud of dust and gas. Located roughly 1,300 light years away in the constellation Orion (“The Hunter”), the iconic silhouette of a horse’s head and neck rises from what look like churning waves of interstellar foam.

Webb, the most powerful space observatory ever built, is able to detect infrared light at unprecedented resolutions, revealing objects that cannot be seen using the visible spectrum in optical telescopes. “An international team of astronomers has revealed for the first time the small-scale structures of the illuminated edge of the Horsehead,” a NASA statement said. As ultraviolet light evaporates the dust cloud, particles are swept away by the outflow of heated gas -- a process Webb has now shown in action.

This handout image shows the “mane” of the Horsehead Nebula imaged by Webb’s MIRI instrument.--AFP photos
This handout image shows the “mane” of the Horsehead Nebula imaged by Webb’s MIRI instrument.--AFP photos

The observations have also given astronomers new insights into how dust blocks and emits light, and a better idea of the nebula’s multidimensional shape. The work was the result of an study led by Karl Misselt of the University of Arizona, and published Monday in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The Horsehead Nebula has fascinated space enthusiasts since its discovery in 1888 by the renowned Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming.

While it appears shadowy in optical light, the nebula comes to life when viewed through infrared wavelengths, taking on transparent and ethereal hues. This delicate pillar of hydrogen gas infused with dust is being steadily worn away by the radiation of a nearby star. Astronomers estimate the Horsehead will disappear in another five million years. — AFP

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