The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning image of the birth of a new star. As dust and gas clump together and eventually collapses under the force of gravity, it becomes a protostar: the core of a new star, rotating and forming a magnetic field, throwing off material in two dramatic jets of gas.
This process is on display in this image of the cloud L1527, taken using Webb’s NIRCam instrument. Looking in the infrared, this camera can capture the clouds of material given off by the protostar which would be invisible to the human eye.
In the image, the protostar itself can’t be seen but is located right in the center of the hourglass shape. That shape is formed from clouds of dust and gas which are shaped by the jets given off by the protostar, with thinner areas of dust appearing blue and thicker areas appearing orange. In addition to the dust, there are also filaments of hydrogen gas visible, shaped by ejections from the protostar.
Researchers estimate that this protostar is around 100,000 years old, making it a baby by stellar standards. For comparison, our sun is around 4.6 billion years old and is expected to live to around 9 to 10 billion years of age. The protostar is also smaller than our sun, at between 20 to 40% of its mass, and most importantly it is not yet producing heat through fusion.
The protostar will continue gathering dust and gas and increasing in mass. As this material falls into the protostar due to gravity, it heats up because of friction. To start fusing hydrogen, the protostar needs to reach a core temperature of around 10 million degrees Kelvin. At this temperature, the gases become plasma, and hydrogen atoms start fusing together to form helium, releasing energy in the form of heat and light. This is the point at which a protostar becomes a main sequence star.
Some of the material left around the protostar could even become a planet one day. “Ultimately, this view of L1527 provides a window onto what our Sun and Solar System looked like in their infancy,” Webb scientists write.
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