HomeAstronomy & SpaceAstronomyNASA's Webb catches fiery hourglass as new star forms

NASA’s Webb catches fiery hourglass as new star forms

The once-hidden features of the protostar within the dark cloud L1527 have been revealed by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It is providing insight into the birth of a new star. These blazing clouds in the Taurus star-forming region can only be seen in infrared light. It makes them an excellent target for Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).

The protostar is concealed within the “neck” of this hourglass shape. A dark line across the middle of the neck indicates an edge-on protoplanetary disc. The protostar’s light leaks above and below the disc, illuminating cavities in the surrounding gas and dust.

The clouds coloured blue and orange in this representative-color infrared image outline cavities formed as material shoots away from the protostar and collides with surrounding matter. The colours are caused by dust layers between Webb and the clouds. The dust is thinnest in the blue areas. The thicker the dust layer, the less blue light can escape, resulting in pockets of orange.

Webb also discovers shocked filaments of molecular hydrogen as the protostar ejects material away from it. Shocks and turbulence prevent new stars from forming, which would otherwise occur throughout the cloud. As a result, the protostar dominates space, absorbing much of the material.

Despite the chaos caused by L1527, it is only about 100,000 years old, making it a relatively young body. L1527 is classified as a class 0 protostar. The earliest stage of star formation, based on its age and brightness in far-infrared light as observed by missions such as the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. These protostars have a long way to go before they can be called stars. These are still cocooned in a dark cloud of dust and gas. L1527 does not yet generate its own energy through nuclear fusion of hydrogen, which is a necessary feature of stars. Its shape, while mostly spherical, is also unstable. It is resembling a small, hot, and puffy clump of gas weighing between 20 and 40% the mass of our sun.

As the protostar gains mass, its core gradually compresses and approaches stable nuclear fusion. L1527 is doing exactly that in the scene depicted in this image. The surrounding molecular cloud is made up of dense dust and gas that is being drawn to the protostar’s centre. The material spirals around the centre as it falls in. This results in the formation of a dense disc of material known as an accretion disc. It feeds material to the protostar. The temperature of its core will rise as it gains mass and compresses further. It eventually reaches the threshold for nuclear fusion to begin.

The disc, visible as a dark band in front of the bright centre in the image, is roughly the size of our solar system. Given the density, it’s not uncommon for much of this material to clump together, forming planets. Finally, this view of L1527 provides a glimpse into the early days of our sun and solar system.


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