Hidden in the cosmic cliffs behind clouds of dust lurks a mysterious event that has puzzled astronomers for years – a “hotbed for star formation”. And now, thanks to NASA’s James Webb Telescope, you too can see how a star is born.
The cliffs, which NASA describes as an area of space “on the edge of a gigantic gas cavity” within star cluster NGC 3324, have been studied for years. But it wasn’t until the Webb Telescope was able to observe it that astronomers found some of the most pristine detail.
With it, NASA scientists discovered 24 previously unknown outflows of baby stars, revealing a “gallery of objects ranging from small fountains to humming behemoths that stretch light-years from forming stars.”
And it’s a gallery that’s hard to find.
NASA said the “very early” formation of each star is a “relatively short-lived event – just a few thousand to 10,000 years in the middle of a multimillion-year star formation process.”
But Webb was able to capture a “snapshot in time,” said astronomer and study leader Megan Reiter, “to see just how much star formation is taking place in what might be a more typical corner of the universe we couldn’t see before.”
A study of the results was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society this month.
Jets and outflows are essentially stellar excretions of space gas and dust left behind during star formation. They can be seen by the presence of molecular hydrogen, an essential ingredient in the formation process. Previously, Hubble could only see those ejections from more evolved objects that were within the telescope’s visual wavelengths, but Webb has “unprecedented sensitivity”, allowing scientists to witness more star stages. young people and get “unprecedented views of environments that resemble the birthplace of our solar system.”
“Jets like these are signposts to the most exciting part of the star-forming process,” said study co-author Nathan Smith. “We only see them for a brief window of time when the protostar is actively accreting.”
For Jon Morse, a member of the team, “it’s like finding buried treasure”.
“In the image first released in July, you see hints of this activity, but these jets are only visible when you go into this deep dive – dissecting data from each of the various filters and analyzing each area alone,” he said.
Many stars observed in this study are expected to become low-mass stars like the sun in our galaxy. And according to Reiter, astronomers will now have a better idea of where in space they can observe how “sun-like stars” materialize.
“This opens the door to what will be possible in terms of observing these newborn star populations in fairly typical environments in the universe that were invisible until the James Webb Space Telescope,” Reiter said.
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