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Monday, July 15, 2024

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captures cosmic fireworks

The observations of L1527 provide valuable insights into the early stages of star formation and the behavior of protostars.

NASA has released a spectacular image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) just in time for USA’s Independence Day, showcasing a mesmerizing display of red, white, and blue “fireworks” in the cosmos. Captured by the JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), the image reveals the violent eruption of an infant star within the nebula L1527, located approximately 460 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

Birth of a Protostar

At the center of this vibrant scene lies a protostar, a young stellar object that is still in the process of becoming a fully-fledged star. This protostar, estimated to be around 100,000 years old, is still enveloped in its natal molecular cloud, a vast region of gas and dust. Despite its ancient appearance, the protostar is relatively young compared to our Sun, which is over 4.5 billion years old.

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The protostar is situated within a blue and white gas and dust cloud, resembling a cosmic butterfly. The white and blue lobes extending from the central region are outflows emitted in opposite directions along the rotational axis of the protostar. These outflows create shockwaves, known as “bow shocks,” which are similar to the curved ridges of water created by a boat. These bow shocks energize the surrounding gas, causing the regions above and below the protostar to glow.

Detailed Look with JWST’s Instruments

The JWST has provided an unprecedented view of L1527 using both its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and MIRI instruments. While NIRCam’s previous observations revealed vibrant orange hues and opaque colors, the new MIRI image showcases intricate details of the protostar’s behavior and its surrounding environment. The areas colored in blue represent shocked gas dominated by carbon-based molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, while the red regions indicate the dense blanket of dust and gas around the protostar.

The central dark line seen in the MIRI image represents a disk of matter that is gradually being fed to the protostar. The white glow in the image, resulting from sporadic “stellar burps” of material, indicates a mix of ionized neon and thick dust being propelled far from the feeding infant star. The red spiky extensions around the protostar are artifacts of JWST’s optics.

Evolution of L1527

As the protostar continues to evolve, it will consume, destroy, and push away much of the surrounding molecular cloud. This process, marked by energetic jets and radiation, will eventually lead to the fading of the current structures visible in the JWST images. Once the protostar completes its transformation into a main sequence star, the spectacular cosmic butterfly will be gone, and the star itself will become much clearer.

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The observations of L1527 provide valuable insights into the early stages of star formation and the behavior of protostars. The Taurus molecular cloud complex, where L1527 resides, is a stellar nursery containing hundreds of newly formed stars. The influence of stars like L1527 could impact the formation of other stars within the complex, either by disrupting the molecular cloud or by catalyzing the development of new stars.