The powerful James Webb Space Telescope is a powerful technological tool. Astrophysicists first conceived it more than 20 years ago, and after many twists and turns, it launched on December 25, 2021. Now it is in halo orbit at the Sun-Earth L2 point, where it will hopefully continue to operate for 20 years.
It’s only been a few months since the first images were released, and it’s already making progress in answering some of the universe’s most compelling questions.
In a newly released image, the JWST peered deep into huge clouds of gas and dust to see young stars come to life in their stellar cocoons.
One of the JWST’s first images was of the “Cosmic Cliffs.” The Cosmic Cliffs form 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 cavernous openings and leaving towers of gas that resist the radiation.
We were all stunned by that view in July, but scientists have dived in to learn more about the region and the star-forming activity taking place there. The Monthly communications from the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) published a paper with the results of their work.
It is titled “Deep Diving of the ‘Cosmic Cliffs’: Previously Hidden Outflows in NGC 3324 Revealed by JWST.” The lead author is astronomer Megan Reiter of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
The researchers examined the Webb image more closely and discovered more than two dozen outflows from hot young stars that had not been seen before. There’s everything from “tiny fountains to rippling behemoths,” according to a press release announcing the results. Some outflows extend several light years from their star.
“What Webb gives us is a snapshot to see how much star formation is going on in what might be a more typical corner of the universe that we haven’t had the opportunity to see before,” Reiter said.
The JWST’s powerful infrared capabilities fueled this study. It can target molecular hydrogen, the main ingredient in stars. It’s an excellent tracer of star-forming activity because as young stars grow, they take up the hydrogen and expel some of it in jets and polar outflows. Called stellar feedback, these jets carve caverns 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 these clouds. Exploring young stars in the clouds is one of the telescope’s four main scientific objectives.
“Webb will be able to see right through and into huge clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble, where stars and planetary systems are born,” a NASA website declared long before the telescope was completed and launched.
Now we see all those words coming true.
“Jets like this are signposts for the most exciting part of the star formation process. We only see them for a short period of time when the protostar is actively growing,” said study co-author Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The more astronomers learn about young stars forming elsewhere, the more they learn 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 when it comes to looking at these populations of newborn stars in fairly typical environments of the Universe that were invisible until the James Webb Space Telescope,” Reiter added.
“Now we know where to look to investigate which variables are important for the formation of Sun-like stars.”
The outburst jets in the earliest stages of star formation are challenging to observe because they take place in a thick mantle of gas and last for only a short period of 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 that the original Cosmic Cliffs image alluded to.
“In the image first released in July, you can see hints of this activity, but these jets are only visible when you get into that deep dive — by parsing data from each of the different filters and analyzing each area separately. said team member Jon Morse of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
“It’s like finding buried treasure.”
Understanding how young stars form is one of the most important quests in astrophysics today. The collective light of the first stars contributed to the re-ionization of the early universe. Before the Age of Reionization, a dense fog of primordial gas obscured the Universe. During reionization, the light from young stars helped remove the haze from the Universe and allowed light to travel.
But astrophysicists don’t know how these first stars formed, and addressing that question is one of the main scientific goals of the JWST. The JWST can see heavily redshifted objects from the early days of the Universe, but cannot discern individual stars.
That’s why these newly released images are essential. Astrophysicists can’t study the formation of the very first stars, but they can watch how young stars form today and work their way toward a better understanding of the Age of Reionization.
This isn’t the first time astronomers have studied the formation of young stars in this region. The Hubble looked at it 16 years ago.
And while the Hubble can’t discern as much detail as the James Webb, it revealed enough for the study authors to compare how the jets and outflows have changed in the intervening 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 stellar formation.
“Future observations will allow quantitative analysis of the excitation, mass loss rates and velocities of these new currents,” the authors write.
“As a relatively modest region of massive star formation, NGC 3324 offers a preview of what star-forming studies with JWST can yield.”
Future observations will be more thorough and detailed. They will help shed even more light on one of astronomy’s hottest topics: how young stars drive planet formation.
Feedback mechanisms mark young stars. They are still growing, and as they collect gas from the clouds they are embedded in, they eject some of it back into their surroundings with their jets. The gas outflows help form their protoplanetary disks and form planets like ours.
A better understanding of these outflows leads to a better understanding of planets and, by complex extension, the likelihood of life appearing elsewhere.
Our solar system likely formed in a cluster similar to the one in this study. Astronomers aren’t sure yet, but uncovering the details in NGC 3324 may shed some light on our origins.
We live in the ‘Stelliferous Era’ of the universe, according to the book ‘The Five Ages of the Universe’. In this era, matter is mainly arranged into stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Stars produce the most energy in the universe and will continue to do so for a long time to come. Since stars provide the energy for life, the Stelliferous Era could easily be called the Life Era.
The JWST can collect ancient light from the first stars and galaxies and look deep into stellar cocoons to show us how stars are born. The results are fascinating scientific insights, but besides answering our scientific questions, the JWST does something else. It gives context to humanity’s existence in the Life Era of the Universe.
The sun is no different from other stars. The same forces drove its birth and evolution, and the Sun would have ejected the same outbursts and polar jets as the young stars in this image. Those feedback mechanisms would have formed the protoplanetary disk in which Earth formed.
So every time we see images of young stars elsewhere, we learn something about our origins. We’re lucky enough to have the James Webb Space Telescope to show us these vivid, sweeping vistas of star birth. The beautiful, refined detail transports the mind next to the eye. We can sit and wonder if life or even another civilization could arise around each of them.
This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.