James Webb spots unique jets of gas in the Serpens Nebula

24 Jun 2024

A section of the Serpens Nebula, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Dr Klaus Pontoppidan (NASA-JPL), Dr Joel Green (STScI)

The researchers say the jets are all slanted in the same direction, a phenomenon that could help us learn more about the fundamentals of how stars are formed.

Researchers using the James Webb Space Telescope have spotted a unique phenomenon – jets of gas from newborn stars all moving in the same direction.

The James Webb images capture the Serpens Nebula – a young star-forming region that is roughly 1,300 light years from Earth. This nebula is home to a dense cluster of newly forming stars, some of which will eventually grow to the mass of our sun.

Locations like this nebula are important regions for astronomers to investigate, as they can uncover information on how stars are formed. Using the power of Webb, the researchers focused on a group of “protostellar outflows”, which are formed when jets of gas spewing from newborn stars collide with nearby gas and dust at high speeds.

Normally, these objects have varied orientations within one region. But in the images taken by Webb, they are slanted in the same direction and to the same degree. These jets of gas are visible on the top left of the full image.

An image showing a distant nebula, with blue and orange light swirling next to each other in the centre of the image. There is a mass of red gas to the top left of of the image.

The Serpens Nebula, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The aligned protostellar outflows are visible on the top left corner of the photo. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Dr Klaus Pontoppidan (NASA-JPL), Dr Joel Green (STScI)

“Astronomers have long assumed that as clouds collapse to form stars, the stars will tend to spin in the same direction,” said principal investigator of the study, Dr Klaus Pontoppidan. “However, this has not been seen so directly before. These aligned, elongated structures are a historical record of the fundamental way that stars are born.”

In the Webb image, these jets of gas are signified by bright clumpy streaks that appear red, which are shockwaves from the jet hitting surrounding gas and dust. Lead author of the study Dr Joel Green said this region of the nebula only comes into clear view thanks to Webb’s instruments.

“We’re now able to catch these extremely young stars and their outflows, some of which previously appeared as just blobs or were completely invisible in optical wavelengths because of the thick dust surrounding them,” Green said.

The researchers said they will continue their investigation into this nebula and plan to use Webb’s NIRSpec – or Near-Infrared Spectrograph – instrument to investigate the chemical make-up of the cloud.

Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope was used to learn more about the origins of the unusual Crab Nebula.

Find out how emerging tech trends are transforming tomorrow with our new podcast, Future Human: The Series. Listen now on Spotify, on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic