James Webb captures ‘a burning hourglass’ as a star forms

protostar  is hidden from view within the “neck” of this hourglass figure captured by the James Webb .


The James Webb Space Telescope  has revealed once-hidden features of the protostar within the dark cloud L1527 , providing details about the beginnings of a new star.

These glowing clouds within the Taurus star-forming region are only visible in infrared light, making them an ideal target for Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam).

The stellar hourglass

The protostar itself is hidden from view within the “neck” of this hourglass shape. An edge-on protoplanetary disk is seen as a dark line down the middle of the neck. Light from the protostar filters above and below this disk, illuminating cavities within the surrounding gas and dust.

The most predominant features of the region, the blue and orange clouds in this representative color infrared image, outline the cavities created when material shoots out of the protostar and collides with surrounding matter. The colors themselves are due to layers of dust between James Webb and the clouds. The blue areas are where the dust is thinnest. The thicker the layer of dust, the less blue light can escape, creating pockets of orange.

Webb also reveals filaments of molecular hydrogen that have been impacted when the protostar ejects material from it. Shocks and turbulence inhibit the formation of new stars, which would otherwise form throughout the cloud. As a result, the protostar dominates space, grabbing much of the material, NASA reports .

Despite the chaos that L1527 causes , it is only about 100 thousand years old, a relatively young body. Given its age and its brightness in far-infrared light observed by missions such as the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, L1527 is considered a class 0 protostar , the earliest stage of star formation. Protostars like these, still shrouded in a dark cloud of dust and gas, have a long way to go before they become full-fledged stars. L1527it does not yet generate its own energy through nuclear hydrogen fusion, an essential feature of stars. Its shape, while mostly spherical, is also unstable, taking the form of a small mass of hot, swollen gas somewhere between 20 and 40% the mass of our Sun.

As the protostar continues to accumulate mass, its core gradually compresses and approaches stable nuclear fusion. The scene shown in this image reveals that L1527 does just that. The surrounding molecular cloud is made up of dense dust and gas that is drawn towards the center, where the protostar resides. As the material falls, it spirals around the center. This creates a dense disk of material, known as an accretion disk, which feeds material to the protostar. As it gains more mass and is further compressed, the temperature of its core will rise, eventually reaching the threshold for nuclear fusion to begin.

The disk, seen in the image as a dark band in front of the bright center, is about the size of our solar system. Given the density, it’s not unusual for much of this material to clump together: the beginnings of planets. Ultimately, this view of L1527 provides a window into what our Sun and solar system looked like in its infancy. (Europe Press)