Webb Telescope Captures Impressive First Image of Aligned Jets from Newborn Stars

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 20, 2024 16:30
Webb Telescope Captures Impressive First Image of Aligned Jets from Newborn Stars

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured a groundbreaking image of aligned jets from newborn stars in the Serpens Nebula, offering new insights into star formation processes.

This discovery marks a significant achievement in astronomy, as it provides direct evidence supporting theories about how stars are born.

The Discovery in the Serpens Nebula

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged aligned protostellar outflows using the Webb Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). The stunning image reveals a group of protostellar outflows in the northern area of the Serpens Nebula, a young star-forming region located approximately 1,300 light-years from Earth.

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These outflows are formed when jets of gas spew from newborn stars, colliding with nearby gas and dust at high speeds. Typically, these jets have varied orientations within a region, but in this instance, they are all slanted in the same direction, like sleet pouring down during a storm.

“This discovery is providing information into the fundamentals of how stars are born,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, principal investigator from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The alignment of these jets, made visible by Webb’s exceptional spatial resolution and sensitivity to near-infrared wavelengths, suggests that we are observing this region at a unique moment in its history.

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Significance of the Aligned Jets

The alignment of the stellar jets relates to the rotation of the forming stars. As an interstellar gas cloud collapses to form a star, it spins more rapidly. For the gas to continue moving inward, some of the spin, known as angular momentum, must be removed.

This is accomplished through the formation of a disk of material around the young star, which transports material inward, much like a whirlpool around a drain. Swirling magnetic fields in the inner disk then launch some of the material into twin jets that shoot outward in opposite directions, perpendicular to the disk.

In the Webb image, these jets appear as bright red clumpy streaks, indicating shockwaves where the jets hit the surrounding gas and dust.

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The red color signifies the presence of molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide. “We’re now able to catch these extremely young stars and their outflows, some of which previously appeared as just blobs or were completely invisible in optical wavelengths because of the thick dust surrounding them,” said Joel Green, lead author from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Future Studies

The stunning image and serendipitous discovery of the aligned jets are just the first step in this scientific program. The research team will now use Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to investigate the chemical makeup of the cloud. Astronomers aim to determine how volatile chemicals, such as water and carbon monoxide, survive the star and planet formation process. These volatiles, which transition from solid to gas at relatively low temperatures, are crucial for understanding the conditions that lead to the formation of planetary systems.

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“At the most basic form, we are all made of matter that came from these volatiles. The majority of water here on Earth originated when the Sun was an infant protostar billions of years ago,” Pontoppidan explained. By examining the abundance of these critical compounds in protostars just before their protoplanetary disks form, scientists hope to understand better the uniqueness of the conditions under which our solar system formed.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s premier space science observatory, continues to solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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