A star is born: DIAS captures stellar birth with James Webb

24 Aug 2023

The young star Herbig-Haro 211-mm, with supersonic jets of hot molecular material. Image: DIAS/JWST

The powerful instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope have revealed new mysteries of a young star, which is believed to be only a few thousand years old.

A team of astronomers have managed to capture an advanced image of a stellar birth, using the power of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The astronomers – led by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) – have revealed a detailed image of one of the youngest stars known to scientists. Some stars can have a lifespan of billions of years, but this star – Herbig-Haro 211-mm – is believed to be only a few thousand years old.

The image was captured using the James Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam), the observatory’s primary camera that simultaneously images the cosmos in two different infrared ranges.

Prof Tom Ray, lead author of the new study, said new stars are often “enshrouded in gas and dust”, which makes them difficult to spot. The James Webb’s instruments are able to penetrate this gas, revealing new insights into the birth of the star.

“One very exciting discovery from this new image is that when a star comes into being, it emits highly supersonic beams of matter that can stretch for several light-years,” Ray said. “These beams resemble Star Wars lightsabers and shine with light from many different atoms and molecules.”

“By developing our understanding about how [stars] are born, through breakthroughs such as this, we are deepening our knowledge on how our sun and the solar system came into being.”

Ray said the new images suggest that young stars emit beams of “almost pure molecules”, which is contrary to what astronomers previously thought.

“How such beams are produced without the added ingredients of atoms and ions, is currently a mystery,” Ray said.

Ray and others at DIAS played a key role in the initial development of the Webb telescope, in particular the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on board. MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph that observes mid to long infrared radiation.

Built as a successor to the Hubble Telescope, James Webb is the most powerful observatory ever built, letting scientists gaze further into space than ever before and unlocking new insights into how the universe works.

The new image is the latest in a series of stunningly detailed images released by the James Webb Space Telescope. Recent images of the well-known Ring Nebula revealed previously unknown features and new insights into the structures within it.

At the beginning of 2023, the telescope found its first exoplanet and a few months later, it spotted a star about to go supernova. One of its most recent observations was smoke molecules in a distant galaxy, the first time such molecules have been spotted so far away.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic