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Captivating image of Serpens Nebula reveals how stars are born

For the first time, astronomers have directly imaged a long-anticipated star formation phenomenon in the Serpens Nebula, captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).

This remarkable image of the Serpens Nebula reveals a discovery in the northern area of this young, nearby star-forming region.

A unique alignment in the Serpens Nebula

Astronomers identified a fascinating group of protostellar outflows formed when jets of gas from newborn stars collide with surrounding gas and dust at high speeds.

Typically, these outflows have varied orientations within one region. However, in this case, they align uniformly, resembling sleet pouring down during a storm.

This discovery, enabled by Webb’s exceptional spatial resolution and sensitivity in near-infrared wavelengths, sheds light on the fundamentals of star formation.

“Astronomers have long assumed that as clouds collapse to form stars, the stars will tend to spin in the same direction,” said Klaus Pontoppidan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“However, this has not been seen so directly before. These aligned, elongated structures are a historical record of the fundamental way that stars are born.”

The role of stellar jets

The alignment of stellar jets is linked to the rotation of the forming star. As an interstellar gas cloud collapses to form a star, it spins more rapidly. To continue moving inward, some of the spin – known as angular momentum – must be removed.

A disk of material forms around the young star, transporting material down like a whirlpool around a drain. Swirling magnetic fields in the inner disk launch some material into twin jets that shoot outward in opposite directions, perpendicular to the disk.

In the Webb image, these jets are visible as bright, clumpy streaks appearing red due to shockwaves from the jet colliding with surrounding gas and dust. The red color signifies the presence of molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Young stars and their outflows

“This area of the Serpens Nebula – Serpens North – only comes into clear view with Webb,” said study lead author Joel Green of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“We’re now able to catch these extremely young stars and their outflows, some of which previously appeared as just blobs or were completely invisible in optical wavelengths due to thick dust.”

Astronomers suggest several forces can shift the direction of outflows during a young star’s life. One possibility is binary stars spinning around each other, causing a wobble that twists the direction of the outflows over time.

Young stars of the Serpens Nebula

The Serpens Nebula, located 1,300 light-years from Earth, is a mere one or two million years old. It hosts a dense cluster of newly forming stars, some of which will eventually grow to the mass of our Sun.

“Webb is a young stellar object-finding machine,” noted Green. “In this field, we pick up signposts of every single young star, down to the lowest mass stars.”

Filaments and wisps of different hues in the image represent starlight reflected from still-forming protostars within the cloud. Some areas show dust in front of that reflection, appearing as an orange, diffuse shade.

Star and planet formation research

This image, along with the serendipitous discovery of aligned objects, marks just the beginning of the team’s scientific endeavor.

Coming up next, the researchers will use Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) to analyze the chemical makeup of the cloud. The goal is to determine how volatile chemicals, which sublimate at relatively low temperatures, survive star and planet formation.

“At the most basic form, we are all made of matter that came from these volatiles,” said Pontoppidan. “Looking at the abundance of these critical compounds in protostars just before their protoplanetary disks have formed could help us understand how unique the circumstances were when our own solar system formed.”

The detailed analyses will provide insight into the composition of protoplanetary disks of similar-type stars, furthering our understanding of the complex processes which promote star and planet formation.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, K. Pontoppidan (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and J. Green (Space Telescope Science Institute).


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