The powerful James Webb Space Telescope is a powerful technological tool. Astrophysicists first conceived it over 20 years ago, and after many twists and turns, it was launched on December 25, 2021. It is now in a halo orbit at the Sun-Earth point L2, where it will hopefully remain operational for 20 years.
It’s only been a few months since the first images were released, and it’s already making strides in answering some of the universe’s most compelling questions.
In a newly released image, the JWST peered deep into massive clouds of gas and dust to watch young stars come to life in their stellar cocoons.
One of the first JWST images was of the “Cosmic Cliffs”. The cosmic cliffs are the edge of an active star-forming region in NGC 3324, a star cluster near the Carina Nebula.
The image shows the intense ultraviolet energy of hot young stars shaping the region, carving out cavernous gaps and leaving towers of radiation-resisting gas.
We all marveled at this image in July, but scientists have been delving into it to learn more about the region and the star-forming activity taking place there. That Monthly Bulletins of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) published a paper presenting the results of their work.
It is titled “Deep diving off the ‘cosmic bluffs’: previously hidden drains in NGC 3324 revealed by JWST.” Lead author is astronomer Megan Reiter of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The researchers took a closer look at the Webb image and found over two dozen outflows from hot young stars not previously seen. From “small fountains to splashing giants” everything is included, according to a press release announcing the results. Some of the outflows extend several light-years from their star.
“What Webb is giving us is a snapshot to see how much star formation is going on in what may be a more typical corner of the universe that we haven’t been able to see before,” Reiter said.
The JWST’s powerful infrared capabilities drove this study forward. It can focus on molecular hydrogen, the main component of stars. It’s an excellent tracer of star-forming activity because as young stars grow, they absorb the hydrogen and eject some of it in jets and polar outflows. It’s called stellar feedback, and these jets carve caves in the clouds of gas and dust in the image.
Young, still-forming protostars are obscured by the dense molecular clouds from which they emerge. But the JWST has the power to see into those clouds. Studying young stars in the clouds is one of the four main scientific goals of the telescope.
“Webb will be able to see directly through and into massive dust clouds that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble, where stars and planetary systems form,” a NASA website declared, long before the telescope was completed and launched .
Now we see all those words come true.
“Jets like this are signposts for the most exciting part of the star formation process. We only see them during a short window of time when the protostar is actively accreting,” explained co-author Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona at Tucson.
As astronomers learn more about the formation of young stars elsewhere, they learn more about how our own sun formed and how our solar system formed. The JWST expands and deepens our understanding of the complex mechanisms behind their formation.
“It opens the door to what will be possible to look at these populations of newborn stars in fairly typical settings of the Universe that were invisible until the James Webb Space Telescope,” added Reiter.
“Now we know where to look next to find out which variables are important for the formation of Sun-like stars.”
The outflow jets in the earliest stages of star formation are difficult to observe because they occur in a thick envelope of gas and last for only a short time. The jets can only flow for a few thousand years, maybe ten thousand. Using the JWST’s powerful filters, astronomers examined some of the jets and outflows alluded to in the original image of the cosmic cliffs.
“In the image, first released in July, you can see evidence of this activity, but these jets are only visible when you embark on this deep dive – by dissecting data from each of the different filters and analyzing each area individually,” shared team member Jon Morse with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
“It’s like finding buried treasure.”
Understanding how young stars are formed is one of the main tasks of astrophysics today. The collective light from the first stars helped drive the reionization of the early universe. Before the epoch of reionization, a dense nebula of primordial gas shrouded the universe. During reionization, light from young stars helped clear the universe of haze and light travel.
But astrophysicists don’t know how these first stars formed, and answering that question is one of JWST’s major scientific goals. The JWST can see strongly redshifted objects from the early days of the universe, but it cannot see individual stars.
That’s why these newly released images are essential. Astrophysicists cannot study the formation of the very first stars, but they can observe the formation of young stars today and work towards a more solid understanding of the epoch of reionization.
This isn’t the first time astronomers have studied the formation of young stars in this region. The Hubble looked at this 16 years ago.
And while the Hubble can’t see as much detail as the James Webb, it did reveal enough for the study’s authors to compare how the jets and outflows have changed over the past few years.
The measurements show the speed and direction in which the jets are moving, details necessary for understanding young stars.
These are Early Release Images (ERO) and are just the beginning of the JWST and its study of star formation.
“Future observations will allow quantitative analysis of the excitation, mass loss rates, and velocities of these new flows,” the authors write.
“As a relatively modest region of massive star formation, NGC 3324 offers a preview of what star formation studies using JWST could provide.”
Future observations will be more thorough and detailed. They will help shed even more light on one of the hottest topics in astronomy: how young stars drive planet formation.
Feedback mechanisms characterize young stars. They’re still growing, and as they gather gas from the clouds they’re embedded in, they’re releasing some of it back into their surroundings with their jets. The gas outflows help shape their protoplanetary disks and form planets like ours.
A better understanding of these outflows leads to a better understanding of the planets and, by complex extension, the likelihood of life arising elsewhere.
Our solar system likely formed in a cluster similar to the one in this study. Astronomers aren’t sure yet, but by uncovering the details in NGC 3324, they may shed some light on our origins.
According to the book “The Five Ages of the Universe” we live in the “stelliferous era” of the universe. In this era, matter is mainly organized into stars, galaxies, and galaxy clusters. Stars produce most of the energy in the universe and will continue to do so for a long time. Since stars provide the energy for life, the era of the observatory could easily be called the era of life.
The JWST can collect ancient light from the first stars and galaxies and peer deep into stellar cocoons to show us how stars are born. The results are fascinating scientific discoveries, but besides answering our scientific questions, the JWST is doing something else. It gives context to the existence of humanity in the lifetime of the universe.
The sun is no different from other stars. The same forces drove its birth and evolution, and the Sun would have emitted the same outflows and polar jets as the young stars in this image. These feedback mechanisms would have shaped the protoplanetary disk in which Earth formed.
Every time we see pictures of young stars elsewhere, we learn something about our origins. We are fortunate that the James Webb Space Telescope is showing us these vivid, far-reaching views of star birth. The beautiful, exquisite detail transports the mind alongside the eye. We can sit and wonder if life or even another civilization could arise around everyone.
This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.