A fiery image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows star formation
The newest space telescope on the block has spotted a blazing cosmic hourglass bursting with vibrant colors and harboring a nascent star or protostar at its heart.
The Flaming entity in Taurus star-forming region and the protostar within it are hidden from telescopes by a dense, dark cloud of gas and dust known as L1527. The formation is only visible in infrared light, making it an excellent target for the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on board the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST).
Astronomers hope that the study of the cosmic hourglass will help illuminate the processes taking place around the protostar, which itself is hidden from view in the throat of the formation. The observations could also help explain how young stars reach adulthood, according to a statement from the Maryland Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the telescope.
The protostar within L1527 and the cause of these turbulent conditions is only 100,000 years old, a mere infant in cosmic terms. Its young age and infrared brightness make the star L1527 what astronomers call a class 0 protostar, which marks the earliest stage of star formation. Class 0 protostars like this one are still encased in the clouds of gas and dust from which they formed, and are still a long way from becoming full stars.
The shape of the protostar is currently mostly spherical, but still unstable and would appear as a small, hot and “bloated” blob of gas with a mass between 40% and 20% of sun.
While the protostar is hidden, the image reveals a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust around the star, which appears as a dark line across the mouth of the hourglass. This structure forms as material is pulled toward the center of the hourglass, allowing the protostar to feed from the disk, which is roughly the size of solar system.
As the young star gains mass to grow in size, the material will also compress the star, raising the temperature and pressure in the core enough for nuclear fusion to begin. Nuclear fusion transforms the hydrogen in the star’s core into helium, generating energy, and the moment marks an important step in the star’s development.
An antisocial protostar shaping a lonely nursery
Although much of the surrounding material is fed into the protostar, allowing it to accumulate mass, the JWST image also shows filaments of molecular hydrogen that have been shocked by material ejected from the central protostar. This turbulence removes gas and dust – the raw material of stars – and thus prevents the birth of other stars around the protostar, allowing it to effectively dominate this region of space.
Astronomers know, without seeing the protostar, that it is present by perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the image, the massive hourglass shape itself. As light from the protostar flows above and below the protoplanetary disk, it illuminates cavities in the surrounding gas and dust carved out by the growing star.
Outlining these voids are blue and orange clouds, with blue representing areas where the dust is thinnest and orange marking where it is thickest. Astronomers determined these colors because the thicker the dust, the more blue light is trapped, resulting in orange pockets.
Moreover, within the dark disk at the heart of the cosmic hourglass, material accumulates in pockets dense enough to eventually form planets. This means that the new view of L1527 provides a cosmic window through which we can look back, observing what the sun and our planetary system may have looked like during their formative stages more than 4.5 billion years ago.
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