July 15, 2024
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Space

Webb telescope reveals parallel jets of baby stars – Sky & Telescope

Rainbow-colored image of the Snake Nebula
The Snake Nebula is a cloud of stars, dust, and gas 1,300 light-years away. A small region (upper left) of this James Webb Space Telescope image shows a cluster of aligned protostellar jets. These jets appear as clumpy, bright red streaks, the product of shock waves generated when the jet collides with surrounding gas and dust. The blue wisps in the center are starlight reflected from young protostars, which are sometimes obscured by dust (shown in hazy orange).
NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI / Klaus Pontoppidan (NASA-JPL) / Joel Green (STScI)

The latest image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope does not disappoint. A spectacular view of the Serpens Nebula, captured by the telescope's near-infrared camera, reveals a never-before-seen feature of early star formation.

The telescope has detected unprecedented detail in the gaseous jets emanating from young stars, which form when newborn stars accumulate material around them. The gas jets collide with gas and dust in the nebula itself, and their detection could yield valuable information about the birth of stars.

The discovery can be seen in the upper left corner of the image, where a stream of perfectly aligned red and orange streaks (representing molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide) hovers above the blue clouds of reflected starlight in the nebula at the center of the image. With Webb's clearest image of this stellar nursery yet, astronomers hope to learn more about how young stars form and evolve together in a nebula.

A star has been born

Those streaks are protostellar flares, a natural product of star formation. As pockets within a nebula begin to collapse and become spinning balls of gas, their spin will increase as angular momentum is conserved — the principle is the same as figure skaters, who spin faster as they curl their arms inward. For gas to actually fall onto the newborn star, some of this angular momentum must be lost through jets of gas, which are funneled out from the star’s poles at incredible speeds of tens of kilometers per second.

These jets of energy from embryonic stars become visible as shock waves of ionized, molecular and atomic gas collide with nearby material. Such protostellar eruptions have been observed before; what makes this detection unique is their near-perfect alignment.

“The special significance of the result is that almost all of the outflows point in the same direction within +/- 10 degrees, which is extremely unlikely to happen by chance,” says Joel Green (Space Telescope Science Institute), who led the study that appears in the Astrophysical journal“This means that stars form together as they fragment from a larger collapsing cloud, like a litter of kittens, rather than one at a time.”

In the study, Green and his colleagues identified 12 pairs of jets in the northwestern region, all of them aligned with the Serpens filament, a section of the nebula that is a hotbed of star formation. These findings confirm that young stars form in clusters, which are born from the collapse of molecular clouds.

“Although theory has long predicted that stars form in such groups, this clustered and aligned spin has not been seen so clearly before and is a powerful confirmation of our understanding of how stars like the Sun form,” Green said.

Webb's sensitivity at mid-infrared wavelengths allowed it to more clearly detect the jet's signals (molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and ionized iron) than its predecessors, such as the Spitzer Space TelescopeAnd the telescope's higher resolution captured the jets' alignment for the first time.

Stellar laboratories

The Snake Nebula is an incredibly dense star-forming region, containing about 100,000 stars but spanning only a few light-years. It would fit entirely between the Sun and our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri. The outflows are between 200 and 1,400 years old, and the entire nebula is only 1 to 2 million years old.

“We hope to find out whether star formation is typically driven by the collapse of filamentary clouds like Serpens,” Green says. This stellar nursery will eventually produce stars like our own, and studying the Serpens region may shed light on what that collapse actually looks like. Our Sun likely formed from a much larger cloud than Serpens, so astronomers are eager to investigate other star-forming regions for comparison.

Just 1,300 light-years from Earth, the Snake Nebula is a fascinating interstellar laboratory for astronomers. In addition to protostellar outflows, the nebula is also home to several disk shadows — shadows cast by rotating disks of gas and dust that form around young stars and set the stage for planet formation. One such disk shadow, called “Bat shadow” when it was detected by Hubble in 2018 — is visible in the center of the image. Investigating the chemical composition of the region could also shed light on the chemistry that drives protostars to merge and form planets.

With the help of the Webb telescope, astronomers are capturing the extraordinary moments of protostellar creation to better understand how a star is born.

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