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JWST sees a stunning hourglass of light around a still-forming star

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured an image of a star that hasn’t yet finished forming, along with a disc of debris that may eventually become planets

Space 16 November 2022

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.

A protostar is hidden within the neck of this hourglass shape

NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. Image processing: J. DePasquale, A. Pagan, and A. Koekemoer (STScI)

About 450 light years away, a star is being born. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has taken an image of a protostar – an object that is massive enough to become a star but hasn’t yet begun the process of nuclear fusion – revealing details that have never been seen before.

This protostar is in an area called the Taurus star-forming region, embedded within a dark cloud of dust and gas called L1527. It is only about 100,000 years old, putting it in the first stage of star formation, in which it is still slightly fluffy and lopsided. Over the next few million years, it will continue to compress under its own gravitational pull and then begin to fuse hydrogen into helium and become a fully fledged star.

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At the centre of the glowing hourglass in the JWST image above, the protostar is hidden behind a disc of dust and gas from which it will continue to feed as it grows, and may eventually form a system of planets. This protoplanetary disc, which is about the size of our solar system, looks like a straight line across the “neck” of the hourglass, with light from the nascent star shining out above and below the disc to form the rest of the hourglass shape.

That light is in infrared wavelengths, so it wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye even from nearby, but it fits neatly into the wavelength range used by JWST. The bright clouds in the image are created when the protostar blasts out plumes of material, which slam into the surrounding material, creating turbulence that prevents the formation of other stars within the protostar’s personal space. Observing this object and others like it will help us understand how stars form, as well as how entire planetary systems come into being.

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