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James Webb images capture the galactic winds of newborn stars

A stunning new pair of images from the James Webb Space Telescope show a new view of a familiar galaxy. Messier 82 is a famous starburst galaxy, full of bright and active star formation, and scientists are using Webb to study how stars are being born in the busy conditions at the center of the galaxy.

Astronomers used Webb’s NIRCam instrument to observe the galaxy, and by splitting the resulting data into shorter and longer wavelengths, you can see different features which are picked out in the bustling, active region where stars are forming.

A team of astronomers used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to survey the starburst galaxy Messier 82 (M82), which is located 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. M82 hosts a frenzy of star formation, sprouting new stars 10 times faster than the Milky Way galaxy. Webb’s infrared capabilities enabled scientists to peer through curtains of dust and gas that have historically obscured the star formation process.This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows the centre of M82 with an unprecedented level of detail. With Webb’s resolution, astronomers can distinguish small, bright compact sources that are either individual stars or star clusters. Obtaining an accurate count of the stars and clusters that compose M82’s centre can help astronomers understand the different phases of star formation and the timelines for each stage.
This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows the center of M82 with an unprecedented level of detail. With Webb’s resolution, astronomers can distinguish small, bright compact sources that are either individual stars or star clusters. Obtaining an accurate count of the stars and clusters that compose M82’s center can help astronomers understand the different phases of star formation and the timelines for each stage. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)
Astronomers used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to look toward M82’s centre, where a galactic wind is being launched as a result of rapid star formation and subsequent supernovae. Studying the galactic wind can offer insight into how the loss of gas shapes the future growth of the galaxy.This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows M82’s galactic wind via emission from sooty chemical molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are very small dust grains that survive in cooler temperatures but are destroyed in hot conditions. The structure of the emission resembles that of hot, ionised gas, suggesting PAHs may be replenished by continued ionisation of molecular gas.
This image from Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument shows M82’s galactic wind via emission from sooty chemical molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are very small dust grains that survive in cooler temperatures but are destroyed in hot conditions. The structure of the emission resembles that of hot, ionized gas, suggesting PAHs may be replenished by continued ionization of molecular gas. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, A. Bolatto (UMD)

“M82 has garnered a variety of observations over the years because it can be considered as the prototypical starburst galaxy,” said Alberto Bolatto, lead author of the research, in a statement. “Both Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes have observed this target. With Webb’s size and resolution, we can look at this star-forming galaxy and see all of this beautiful new detail.”

As Bolatto mentions, one of the famous observations of M82 is from the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble took a gorgeous image of the galaxy in 2006, viewing it primarily in the optical wavelength, but the new images from Webb provide a different view as they cover the infrared.

“This image shows the power of Webb,” said Rebecca Levy, second author of the study, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Every white dot in this image is either a star or a star cluster. We can start to distinguish all of these tiny point sources, which enables us to acquire an accurate count of all the star clusters in this galaxy.”

The researchers have identified features like small specks of green, which indicate the presence of iron from supernova remnants, and areas of red which represent ionized hydrogen gas, illuminated by nearby stars. The team was particularly interested in the streams of particular blowing away from areas of newly formed stars, called galactic wind.

“With these amazing Webb images, and our upcoming spectra, we can study how exactly the strong winds and shock fronts from young stars and supernovae can remove the very gas and dust from which new stars are forming,” said Torsten Böker of the European Space Agency, a co-author of the study. “A detailed understanding of this ‘feedback’ cycle is important for theories of how the early Universe evolved, because compact starbursts such as the one in M82 were very common at high redshift.”

The research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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