The newest space telescope on the block has discovered a glowing cosmic hourglass filled with vibrant colors and hiding a young star, or protostar, at its heart.
The burning formation in Taurus star-forming region and the protostar within it is hidden from telescopes by a dense, dark cloud of gas and dust known as L1527. The formation is only visible in infrared light, making it an excellent target for the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST).
Astronomers hope that examining the cosmic hourglass will help elucidate the processes around the protostar, itself hidden from view in the neck of the formation. The observations may also help explain how young stars mature, according to one pronunciation from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which operates the telescope.
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The protostar in L1527 and the cause of these turbulent conditions is only 100,000 years old, still a baby in cosmic terms. Its young age and infrared brightness make the star L1527 what astronomers call a class 0 protostar, marking the earliest stage of star formation. Class 0 protostars like this are still cocooned in the clouds of gas and dust from which they form, and are a long way from becoming full stars.
Currently, the shape of the protostar is mostly spherical but still unstable, and would appear as a small, hot and “swollen” lump of gas with a mass between 40% and 20% of the mass. Sun.
While the protostar is hidden, the image reveals a protoplanetary disk of gas and dust surrounding the star, appearing as a dark line along the neck of the hourglass. This structure forms when material is pulled into the center of the hourglass, allowing the protostar to feed on the disk, which is about the size of the solar system.
As the young star gathers mass to get bigger, the material will also compress the star, raising the temperature and pressure in the core enough to initiate nuclear fusion. Fusion converts hydrogen in the star’s core into helium, generating energy, and the moment marks an important step in the star’s development.
An anti-social protostar who shapes a lonely nursery
While much of the surrounding material is fed into the protostar, allowing it to accumulate mass, the JWST image also shows filaments of molecular hydrogen shocked by material blown away by the central protostar. This turbulence removes gas and dust – the raw material of stars – thus preventing other stars from being born around the protostar, effectively allowing it to dominate this part of space.
Without seeing the protostar, astronomers know it’s present through perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the image, the massive hourglass shape itself. As the light from the protostar leaks above and below the protoplanetary disk, it illuminates voids in the surrounding gas and dust carved out by the growing star.
These empty lobes are outlined by blue and orange clouds, with blue representing areas where the dust is thinnest and orange highlighting where it is thickest. Astronomers assigned these colors because the thicker the dust, the more blue light is trapped, giving rise to orange pockets.
In addition, material in the dark disk at the heart of the cosmic hourglass clumps together in pockets dense enough to eventually form planets. This means that the new view of L1527 provides a cosmic window through which we can look back and observe what the sun and our planetary system looked like during their formation phases more than 4.5 billion years ago.
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