Celebrate Independence Day with Webb’s Star Formation Spectacle

Celestial fireworks surrounding the formation of a star

This new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows a young protostar in the process of forming inside a fiery, hourglass-shaped molecular cloud. Captured with the MIRI instrument, the scene reveals dynamic outflows and bright regions caused by interactions with surrounding gases and dust. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Webb’s latest mid-infrared image shows the formation of a protostar, highlighted by color variations that detail its dynamic interactions with the surrounding molecular cloud.

NASA‘S James Webb Space Telescope celebrates the American Independence Day with a mid-infrared observation of the protostar hidden in the dark molecular cloud L1527 as it evolves. This vivid new view highlights the behavior of this young object and traces the varying concentrations of gas and dust around the protostar.

L1527 and Protostar (Webb MIRI image)

L1527, pictured in this image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), is a molecular cloud hosting a protostar. It is located about 460 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Taurus. The more diffuse blue light and filamentary structures in the image come from organic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), while the red in the center of this image is an energized, thick layer of gases and dust surrounding the protostar. The area in between, shown in white, is a mixture of PAHs, ionized gas, and other molecules. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Webb Space Telescope Captures Celestial Fireworks Around Forming Star

The cosmos seems to come to life with a crackling explosion of pyrotechnics in this new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Taken with Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), this fiery hourglass marks the scene of a very young object in the process of becoming a star. A central protostar grows in the neck of the hourglass, gathering material from a thin protoplanetary disk, seen from the edge as a dark line.

Insights into protostellar development

The protostar, a relatively young object of about 100,000 years, is still surrounded by its original molecular cloud, or large region of gas and dust. Webb’s earlier observation of L1527, using NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), allowed us to peer into this region, revealing this molecular cloud and protostar in opaque, vivid colors.

Dynamic outflows and molecular impact

Both NIRCam and MIRI show the effects of outflows, which are emitted in opposite directions along the protostar’s rotational axis as the object consumes gas and dust from the surrounding cloud. These outflows take the form of bow shocks into the surrounding molecular cloud, appearing as filamentary structures throughout. They are also responsible for carving the bright hourglass structure in the molecular cloud, while energizing or exciting the surrounding matter and causing the regions above and below it to glow. This creates an effect reminiscent of fireworks lighting up a cloudy night sky. However, unlike NIRCam, which primarily shows the light reflected from dust, MIRI provides a glimpse into how these outflows affect the thickest dust and gases in the region.

The regions colored blue here, which comprise most of the hourglass, show mostly carbon-containing molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The protostar itself and the dense blanket of dust and a mixture of gases surrounding it are shown in red. The star-like red protrusions are an artifact of the telescope’s optics (see image below).

Webb's diffraction peaks thumb

This illustration demonstrates the science behind Webb’s diffraction spike patterns, showing how diffraction spikes are created, the influence of the primary mirror and struts, and the contributions of each to Webb’s diffraction spikes. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI), Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

In between, MIRI reveals a white region directly above and below the protostar, which is not as strong in the NIRCam view. This region is a mixture of hydrocarbons, ionized neon, and thick dust, showing that the protostar is pushing this matter quite far away from itself as it consumes messy material from its disk.

The evolving protostar and its future

As the protostar ages and releases energetic jets, it will consume, destroy, and push away much of this molecular cloud, and many of the structures we see here will begin to fade away. Eventually, once it has finished accumulating mass, this impressive display will end, and the star itself will become more visible, even to our visible-light telescopes.

L1527 and Protostar (Webb Compass MIRI image)

This image of nebula L1527, captured by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), shows compass arrows, a scale bar, and a color legend for reference.
The north and east compass arrows show the orientation of the image in the sky. Note that the relationship between north and east in the sky (as seen from below) is reversed compared to direction arrows on a ground map (as seen from above).
The scale bar is in astronomical units (AU). This is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, or 93 million miles (150 million kilometers).
This image shows invisible mid-infrared wavelengths of light translated into visible light colors. The color code shows which MIRI filters were used to collect the light. The color of each filter name is the visible light color used to represent the infrared light passing through that filter.

The combination of both near-infrared and mid-infrared analyses reveals the overall behavior of this system, including how the central protostar influences the surrounding region. Other stars in Taurus, the star-forming region where L1527 resides, are forming in a similar manner, potentially disrupting other molecular clouds and either preventing the formation of new stars or catalyzing their development.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), often hailed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescopeis a large, space-based observatory optimized for infrared wavelengths. This allows it to peer further back in time than any other telescope, observing the formation of the first galaxies and stars. Launched on December 25, 2021, JWST offers unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, allowing astronomers to study every phase of cosmic history in our Universe. Key capabilities include probing the atmospheres of exoplanets, observing distant galaxies, and studying star formation in detail.

Leave a Comment