Hidden in the Cosmic Cliffs behind clouds of dust is a mysterious event that has intrigued astronomers for years – a ‘star formation hotbed’. And now, thanks to NASA’s James Webb Telescope, you too can see how a star is born.
The Cliffs, which NASA describes as a region of space located “at the edge of a giant, gaseous cavity” within the star cluster NGC 3324, has been studied for years. But it wasn’t until the Webb Telescope was able to observe it that astronomers found some of the finer details.
With it, NASA scientists found 24 previously unknown outflows from baby stars, revealing a “gallery of objects ranging from small fountains to behemoths that span light-years from the forming stars.”
And it is a gallery that is hard to find.
NASA said the “very early” formation of each star is a “relatively fleeting event – just a few thousand to 10,000 years in the middle of a multimillion-year star formation process.”
But Webb was able to take a “snapshot in time,” said astronomer and study leader Megan Reiter, “to see how much star formation is happening in a more typical corner of the universe that we don’t have. I could see before.”
A study on the findings was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society this month.
Jets and outflows are essentially stellar excretions of cosmic gas and dust left over during star formation. They can be seen by the presence of molecular hydrogen, a key ingredient in the formation process. Previously, Hubble could only see those ejections of more evolved objects that were in the telescope’s optical wavelengths, but Webb has an “unparalleled sensitivity,” allowing scientists to see younger stages of stars and gain “an unprecedented view of environments that resemble the birthplace of our solar system.”
“Jets like these are signposts to the most exciting part of the star formation process,” said study co-author Nathan Smith. “We only see them for a short period of time when the protostar is actively accreting.”
For team member Jon Morse, “it’s like finding buried treasure.”
“In the image that was first released in July, you see hints of this activity, but those jets are only visible when you take that deep dive – analyzing data from each of the different filters and analyzing each region alone,” he said.
Many of the stars observed in this study are expected to become low-mass stars like our galaxy’s sun. And according to Reiter, astronomers will now have a better idea of where in space they can observe exactly how “sun-like stars” come to fruition.
“It opens the door to what will be possible in terms of looking at these populations of newborn stars in fairly typical environments of the universe that were invisible until the James Webb Space Telescope,” Reiter said.