Last month, the James Webb Telescope gave us a spectacular new image of the Pillars of Creation, arguably the most famous image taken by Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, in 1995. Now the telescope gives astronomers for clues about the formation of a new star, with a stunning image of a dark hourglass-shaped cloud surrounding a protostar, an object known as L1527.
As we previously reported, the James Webb Space Telescope launched in December 2021 and, after several months of suspenseful sunshade and mirror deployment, began capturing stunning images. First, there was the Deep Field Image of the Universe, released in July. This was followed by images of exoplanet atmospheres, the South Ring Nebula, a cluster of interacting galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet, and the Carina Nebula, a star-forming region about 7,600 years old. -light.
In August, we received beautiful images of Jupiter, including auroras at both poles that result from Jupiter’s strong magnetic field, as well as its thin rings and two of the gas giant’s small moons. This was followed a month later by a mosaic image showing a panorama of star formation spanning a staggering 340 light years in the Tarantula Nebula, so named for its long dusty filaments. We were also treated to spectacular images of Neptune and its rings, which have not been directly observed since Voyager 2 flew by the planet in 1989, and, as already mentioned, the Pillars of Creation.
This last image is courtesy of Webb’s primary imager, the Near Infrared Camera (MIRCam). To capture images of very faint objects, NIRCam’s coronagraphs block out any light from nearby brighter objects, much like shielding your eyes from sunlight helps us focus on the scene in front of us. L1527’s dark clouds are only visible in infrared, and NIRCam was able to capture features that were previously hidden. Check it out:
In 2012, astronomers used the Submillimeter Array — a collection of eight radio telescopes arranged in an interferometer that’s also part of the Event Horizon Telescope — to study the accretion disk around L1527 and measure its properties, including rotation. They discovered that the disc exhibited Keplerian motion, much like the planets of our solar system, which allowed them to determine the mass of the protostar. So learning more about L1527 could tell us more about what our own early Sun and solar system looked like.
Protostars are the earliest stage of stellar evolution, which typically lasts about 500,000 years. The process begins when a fragment of a molecular cloud of dense dust and gas acquires sufficient mass from the surrounding cloud to collapse under the force of its own gravity, forming a pressurized nucleus. The fledgling protostar continues to pull mass towards itself, and material spiraling around the center creates an accretion disk.
The protostar in L1527 is only 100,000 years old and therefore does not generate its own energy from nuclear fusion that turns hydrogen into helium, like a star in its own right. Its energy comes rather from the radiation emitted by the shock waves on the surface of the protostar and its accretion disk. Right now, it’s basically a puffy, sphere-shaped clump of gas that’s between 20 and 40 percent of the mass of our Sun. As the protostar continues to gain mass and compress further, its core will continue to heat up. Eventually it will get hot enough to trigger nuclear fusion, and a star will be born.
The Webb image above shows how material ejected from L1527’s protostar created empty cavities above and below; the bright orange and blue regions represent the boundaries describing these regions. (The blue region’s color is because it has less dust in it than the orange regions above it, which trap more blue light in the thick dust so it can’t escape.) The disk accretion appears as a dark band. There are also molecular hydrogen filaments in the image, the result of shocks from the protostar’s ejection material.
Listing image by NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/J. DePasquale
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