James Webb telescope captures stunning image of hourglass-shaped newborn star

GREENBELT, Md. — A new star is born, and it already has an amazing figure! NASA scientists have released a stunning new image that looks like an hourglass on fire. In actuality, it’s a fiery protostar that emerged from the dark cloud L1527, photographed by the James Webb Space Telescope. Tracking the formation of stars could give astronomers more insight into how our own Sun and solar system may have looked in their early stages.

While the star itself is hidden from view in the “neck” of the hourglass shape, a glimpse of it can be seen as a dark line across the middle of the neck. Light from the star is leaking out, creating an illumination within nearby gas and dust. James Webb was successfully able to capture this normally elusive view through its Near-Infrared Camera. The clouds in the Taurus star-forming region can only be viewed in infrared light.

The orange-blue colors seen in the image hold cavities that formed as material shoots away from the protostar and collide with surrounding matter. The colors were the result of accumulating layers of dust between the clouds and the telescope. The thinnest layers of dust exhibit a blue hue. As dust thickens, there is less blue light to escape, creating pockets of orange instead.

As the star moves materials away from it, it shocked filaments of molecular hydrogen. Having shocks and turbulence delays the creation of new stars, which would form all throughout the cloud. With star formation inhibited, the newborn star can take as much space and materials for itself as it wants.

James Webb has captured hour-glassed shaped image of a new star forming.
The protostar within the dark cloud L1527, shown in this image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is embedded within a cloud of material feeding its growth. Ejections from the star have cleared out cavities above and below it, whose boundaries glow orange and blue in this infrared view. The upper central region displays bubble-like shapes due to stellar “burps,” or sporadic ejections. (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale, A. Pagan, and A. Koekemoer (STScI))

This is a very young star

While it might feel old for humans, 100,000 years is relatively young for a star. Its age, along with the brightness it exudes in far-infrared light makes it a class 0 protostar – the earliest stage for a star. This means that L1527 has a long way to go before it becomes a fully developed star.

For example, L1527 is still within a thick cloud of dust and gas and does not create its own energy through nuclear fusion of energy. Developing energy is an essential component of becoming a fully-fledged star. What’s more, the star is very unstable. The star is in the form of a small, hot, and puffy clump of gas between 20 and 40 percent of the mass of our solar system’s star.

While the new star can’t make its own energy, it is getting closer to doing so as it collects mass. With more mass, the core gradually compresses to a place where it might be able to undergo nuclear fusion. This is seen in the photo where the surrounding dust and gas clouds gravitate towards the center where the star is located.

As material falls in, it creates a dense spiral disk around the center known as an accretion disk. The accretion disk feeds material to the baby star to help it grow bigger. Eventually, all the accumulated mass and compression will trigger a rise in core temperature that would reach the threshold for nuclear fusion.

The disk in the photo may seem small at first glance, but scientists estimate it to be the size of our solar system. NASA astronomers suggest that it’s not unusual for material to clump together in this dense band. The clumping signals the formation of new planets in the distant future.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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