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The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured the sharpest infrared images to date of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies, the Horsehead Nebula. The observations show a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.

The nebula formed from a collapsing interstellar cloud of material, and glows because it is illuminated by a nearby hot star. The gas clouds surrounding the Horsehead have already dissipated, but the jutting pillar is made of thick clumps of material that is harder to erode. Astronomers estimate that the Horsehead has about five million years left before it too disintegrates. Webb’s new view focuses on the illuminated edge of the top of the nebula’s distinctive dust and gas structure.

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This image showcases three views of the Horsehead Nebula, which resides in the constellation Orion (The Hunter), in the western side of the Orion B molecular cloud. Rising from turbulent waves of dust and gas is the Horsehead Nebula, otherwise known as Barnard 33, roughly 1300 light-years away.

The first image (left), released in November 2023, features the Horsehead Nebula as seen by ESA’s Euclid telescope. Euclid captured this image of the Horsehead in about one hour, which showcases the mission’s ability to very quickly image an unprecedented area of the sky in high detail. You can learn more about this image here.

The second image (middle) shows the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared view of the Horsehead Nebula, which was featured as the telescope’s 23rd anniversary image in 2013. This image captures plumes of gas in the infrared and reveals a beautiful, delicate structure that is normally obscured by dust. You can learn more about this image here.

The third image (right) features a new view of the Horsehead Nebula from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) instrument. It is the sharpest infrared image of the object to date, showing a part of the iconic nebula in a whole new light, and capturing its complexity with unprecedented spatial resolution.

[Image description: A collage of three images of the Horsehead Nebula. In the left image labelled “Euclid (Visible-Infrared)”, the Nebula is seen amongst its surroundings. A small box around it connects to the second image labelled “Hubble (Infrared)”, where the Nebula is zoomed in on. A portion of the Nebula’s head has another box, which leads with a callout to the third image, labelled “Webb (Infrared)”, of that area.]

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