NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed hidden features of a protostar within the dark cloud L1527, providing insight into 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 the Near Infrared Webcam (NIRCam).
The prototype itself is hidden from view within the “neck” of this hourglass shape. The protoplanetary disk is seen at the edge as a dark line running through the middle of the neck. Light from the protostar leaks above and below this disk, illuminating cavities within the surrounding gas and dust.
The region’s most prevalent feature, the blue-and-orange colored clouds in this representative infrared color image, are outline cavities created when material shoots away from the protostar and collides with surrounding matter. The colors themselves are due to the layers of dust between the web and the clouds. The blue areas are where the dust is the thinnest. The thicker the layer of dust, the less blue light is able to escape, resulting in the formation of orange pockets.
Webb also reveals filaments of molecular hydrogen that are shocked as the protostar ejects material away from it. Shocks and turbulence prevent new stars from forming, which would otherwise form throughout the cloud. As a result, the protostar dominates space, taking in a lot of material for itself.
Despite the havoc L1527 causes, it’s only about 100,000 years old – a relatively young object. Because of its age and brightness in far infrared light as observed by missions such as the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, L1527 is considered a class 0 protostar, the first stage of star formation. Protostars like this one, still confined to a dark cloud of dust and gas, have a long way to go before they can become full-fledged stars. L1527 does not generate its own energy through hydrogen nuclear fusion yet, which is an essential property of stars. Although it is mostly spherical in shape, it is also very unstable, taking the form of a small, hot, puffy lump of gas somewhere between 20 and 40% of the mass of our sun.
As the protostar continues to accumulate mass, its core gradually compresses and approaches a stable nuclear fusion. The scene shown in this image shows that L1527 does just that. The surrounding molecular cloud consists of dense dust and gas that is pulled into the center where the protostar resides. As matter falls, it rotates around the center. This results in a dense disk of material, known as an accretion disk, which feeds material into the protostar. As it gains more mass and more pressure, its core temperature will rise, eventually reaching the threshold for initiating nuclear fusion.
The disk, which appears 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 a lot of this material to clump together—the beginnings of planets. Ultimately, this view of L1527 provides a window into what our solar system and the sun looked like in their infancy.