NASA’s Webb gives us glimpse of how our solar system formed, releasing image of “hourglass” protostar

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has released an image of a young ‘’protostar,’’ only 100,000 years old. The image has been described as a “fiery” cosmic “hourglass”.

Located in the Taurus molecular cloud, around 430 lightyears from Earth, L1527 is one of hundreds of clouds home to protostars in what is known as a “stellar nursery”.

L1527’s protostar itself is hidden in the “neck” of the hourglass-shaped cloud.

The cloud’s features have remained hidden until now, visible only in infrared light, making it an ideal target of investigation for Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam.

New details about the dark cloud named L1527, and the protostar at its centre, have been revealed by NASA in their release announcing the JWST image.

The NIRCam image shows an edge-on view of a protoplanetary disk seen as a dark line across the middle of the neck.

Read more: Webb on Webb: How JWST peers back in time at the earliest stages of the Universe

Shifting the infrared light into the visible spectrum (like transposing sound waves of whale song into the range of human hearing) reveals regions represented by blue and orange molecular dust, outlining cavities within the cloud created by material shooting out from the star and colliding with surrounding matter.

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

Blue areas are where the dust is thinnest, whereas thicker layers of dust trap more high-frequency blue light, creating pockets of orange.

Clouds such as this might see the formation of many stars, but filaments of molecular hydrogen show signs of shock and turbulence emanating from the protostar at the centre of L1527. Such disturbances hinder the formation of new stars. The protostar at its centre sits alone in the L1527 cloud.

The protostar is considered a class 0 protostar – the earliest stage of stellar formation – meaning it has millions of years ahead till it becomes a proper star.

It is yet to produce its own energy through nuclear fusion of hydrogen and, while nearly spherical, its shape is not yet stable. The protostar is a small, hot and puffy clump of gas between 20 and 40% the Sun’s mass.

Read more: The James Webb Space Telescope has captured the Cartwheel Galaxy in vivid pinks

The material surrounding the protostar is being drawn by gravity toward its centre. Material will spiral around the centre forming an accretion disk, feeding material into the protostar. Over time, this material will gather and compress, taking the star’s core closer toward stable nuclear fusion.

The accretion disk in L1527, seen as the dark band in front of the bright centre, is around the size of our solar system. Some of this material may clump together to form planets.

L1527 gives us a glimpse of how our Sun and solar system would have looked in their infancy.

You can see a high-resolution image of the protostar L1527 on the JWST website.


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