James Webb captures cosmic fireworks from a forming star

5 Jul 2024

L1527, a molecular cloud holding a protostar, taken from the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The distant protostar is only 100,000 years old and causes gases to shoot out in an hourglass shape as it consumes surrounding matter.

The James Webb Space Telescope decided to get a bit patriotic for the US Independence Day celebration, as it recently shared an image of a protostar flashing the colours of the country’s flag.

The telescope captured an image of L1527, a molecular cloud that holds a young object in the process of becoming a star – a protostar. The object is relatively young when it comes to a star’s lifespan – being only 100,000 years old compared to our own sun’s age of roughly 4.6bn years.

Normally, this protostar would be obscured by the large amounts of gas and dust surrounding it. But thanks to Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument – or MIRI – the space telescope was able to peer into this region of space and see both the cloud and protostar in vibrant colours.

The image shows blue gases spanning out from the centre in the shape of a bow. NASA said the image shows the effect of outflows, which are emitted in opposite directions along the protostar’s rotational axis as it consumes gas and dust from the surrounding cloud.

These outflows are also responsible for creating the bright hourglass structure within the molecular cloud. NASA said these gases energise the surrounding matter as they move outwards and cause the regions above and below the protostar to glow.

The areas that are blue in the image – the hourglass structure – show mostly carbonaceous molecules that are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These are the same class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil and gasoline.

The protostar itself and the dense blanket of dust and a mixture of gases that surround it are represented in red.

This chaotic mix of colours won’t last forever however. NASA says that as the protostar ages, it will consume and eventually destroy or push away the molecular cloud surrounding it, causing the structures in the image to fade.

Once the protostar finishes gathering mass, the star itself will become more apparent and will be observable even to regular, visible-light telescopes.

This process will take a long time by our standards however – the timeframe for a protostar turning into a star can range from 1m to more than 100m years, depending on the mass of the star.

Recently, images from the James Webb Space Telescope and its predecessor, the Hubble telescope, were combined to give us a deeper view of a cosmic phenomenon known as the pillars of creation.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic