NASA scientists see the start of a new star in a spectacular hourglass, courtesy of an image captured by the James Webb Telescope.
On Wednesday, NASA released details of previously unseen features of a protostar in the dark cloud L1527. The Webb telescope’s near-infrared camera played a vital role in literally bringing this image to life, as the fiery clouds in the Taurus star-forming region are only visible in infrared light.
Dr. Klaus Pontoppidan, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, explained News week that the image is opaque without infrared light, as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. However, the Webb telescope can penetrate dust and can see through fog just like a thermal camera.
“It’s an amazing detail that we’ve never seen before,” Pontoppidan said.
The protostar, as Pontoppidan described, is a star that is still growing and sucking gas and has not quite reached its final mass. In this image it is hidden from view in the “neck” of the hourglass.
The dark line across the center of the neck is an edge-on protoplanetary disk. Light from above and below the disk illuminates cavities in the surrounding gas and dust.
NASA said the blue clouds are where dust is thinnest, while thicker layers of dust — or where less blue light can escape — create orange pockets. Voids are created when material “stretches away from the protostar” and collides with surrounding matter.
The protostar’s distance is about 500 light-years from Earth, which Pontoppidan says seems far, but is in fact one of the closest young stars and about the average distance that young systems form.
He said it’s not much different from what the sun and the solar system itself looked like 4.6 billion years ago.
This is a class 0 protostar, the earliest stage of star formation, and is estimated to be about 100,000 years old. It “sounds like a lot, but it’s almost nothing in astronomy,” Pontoppidan said.
Its existence has been known for decades because of its brightness, he added, but its limited resolution made it look more like a “blob”.
He said this image is estimated to be 10 times sharper than images captured by the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003 and was completed in 2020.
The disk is about the size of our solar system, with clumped material coming together to form the beginnings of planets. NASA says it gives a glimpse into what our sun and solar system looked like in their infancy.
“Overall, it teaches us about our origins,” Pontoppidan said. “They work like time machines and let us go back in time to see how the universe came to be.”
Not only do images like this teach people how physics works, he said we also learn about where we come from and the universe around us.
Future images could look at molecules, such as water or other material, landing on planets that will one day form the “building blocks of life.”