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Orion Nebula

JWST Discovers How Massive Stars Hinder Planet Formation in the Orion Nebula


The universe never fails to amaze us with its celestial wonders, and the Orion Nebula stands as a testament to the intricate dance of stellar creation. Recently, astronomers have turned their attention to this cosmic spectacle using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), uncovering secrets within the stellar nursery that have profound implications for our understanding of planet formation. In this article, we delve into the discoveries made by the JWST team, focusing on a particular protoplanetary disk named d203-506 and the fascinating interplay of radiation from massive stars affecting the birth of planets.

Peering Through the Cosmic Veil

The Orion Nebula, a colossal expanse of gas and dust, serves as the crucible for the birth of new stars. The proximity to Earth makes it the ideal laboratory for astronomers, but the material that forms these stellar bodies also hinders our observations. The intense radiation from massive stars cloaks newborn stars, making it challenging for scientists to study them from our earthly vantage point. However, the JWST, attuned to infrared light, pierces through this cosmic veil, offering astronomers a unique opportunity to witness the intricate processes unfolding in the Orion Nebula from a staggering 1,400 light-years away.

Protoplanetary disk in the orion nebula
Hubble image of the Orion Nebula, and a zoom in on the protoplanetary disc d203-506 taken with the James Webb Space Telescope (Image credit: NASA/STScI/Rice Univ./C.O’Dell et al / O. Berné, I. Schrotter, PDRs4All)

Diving into the Realm of Protoplanetary Disks

The JWST’s focus on the protoplanetary disk d203-506 has unveiled a captivating story of planet formation. This disk, enveloping a small red dwarf star less than a million years old, presents a paradox. Despite being mildly irradiated by its central star, d203-506 faces a relentless assault of high-energy ultraviolet radiation from massive stars in its vicinity. Olivier Berné, the team leader and a research scientist at the Institute de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, explains that these massive stars, significantly more luminous than our sun, cast a potent UV radiation that triggers a process known as ‘photoevaporation,’ hindering the expected formation of planets.

The Missing Jupiter Analog

One of the pivotal outcomes of the research is the revelation that the planetary system emerging from d203-506 will lack an analog for Jupiter, our solar system’s largest gas giant. The intense UV radiation bombarding the disk acts as a suppressant, impeding the formation of a gas giant akin to Jupiter. Through infrared observations, the team measured the rate at which gas escapes from the disk, discovering a substantial loss of mass – about one Earth mass per year.

Comparing Solar Systems

The question that naturally arises is why the solar system, believed to have formed in an environment similar to the Orion Nebula, was able to produce Jupiter while d203-506 faces limitations. Berné provides a crucial insight, pointing out that the mass of the star plays a pivotal role. The red dwarf at the center of d203-506, being five to 10 times less massive than our sun, possesses a weaker gravitational field, making it susceptible to the relentless effects of photoevaporation. In contrast, a star like our sun has a more robust gravitational field, allowing it to resist photoevaporation more effectively.

Serendipitous Discoveries

The journey of discovery began with the protoplanetary disk d203-506 catching the eye of astronomers after being observed with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Northern Chile. Berné recounts the serendipitous nature of the discovery, stating that the object was initially faint in Hubble observations but revealed its brightness during ALMA observations. The subsequent scrutiny with the JWST yielded unexpected riches in the spectra, showcasing the wealth of information contained in the data.


The James Webb Space Telescope’s exploration of the Orion Nebula and its revelation of the intricacies within protoplanetary disk d203-506 marks a significant stride in our comprehension of the cosmic processes shaping planetary systems. The findings not only deepen our understanding of the challenges faced by emerging planets but also invite us to reflect on the unique conditions that allowed our solar system, with its majestic gas giant Jupiter, to emerge. As the JWST continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe, it serves as a beacon guiding humanity’s quest for knowledge in the vast expanse of space.

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