James Webb Telescope gives insights into the formation of the first stars
Image credit: Nasa
Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has released a new image that could explain how the first stars formed in the early universe, over 10 billion years ago.
The image shows a young cluster of stars named NGC 346, which is located the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way more than 200,000 light-years from Earth.
NGC 346 is interesting to astronomers because it resembles the conditions of the early universe when the majority of stars formed.
For this reason, astronomers believe studying this region could help shed light on how the first stars formed during the “cosmic noon”, which is only two or three billion years after the Big Bang.
"We're seeing the building blocks, not only of stars but also potentially of planets," said Guido De Marchi, of the European Space Agency, and a co-investigator on the research team.
“And since the Small Magellanic Cloud has a similar environment to galaxies during cosmic noon, it’s possible that rocky planets could have formed earlier in the Universe than we might have thought.”
The importance of NGC 346 rests on the fact that it houses protostars: clouds of gas and dust that are developing into stars.
As stars develop, they collect gas and dust into a disc that feeds the central star. In contrast to stars in the Milky Way, the SMC contains lower concentrations of metals, so scientists thought it might possess lower amounts of dust, which is mostly made of these particles.
However, the new data has proved the scientists wrong. While astronomers have previously detected gas around protostars within NGC 346, JWST’s image is the first one that has allowed them to detect the dust in these discs.
“This is the first time we can detect the full sequence of star formation of both low and high-mass stars in another galaxy," said Olivia Jones, Science and Technology Facilities Council Webb Fellow at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre.
“This means we have far more data to study at high resolution, offering us new information on how the birth of stars shapes their environment and even greater insight into the star formation process.”
The team also has spectroscopic observations from Webb’s NIRSpec instrument, which are expected to provide new insights into the material accreting onto individual protostars, their surroundings.
Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the $9bn James Webb Telescope is the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever launched, designed to give scientists a more detailed look at the start of the universe, the birth of stars, and possibly the origins of life.
JWST’s light-gathering ability is more than twice than that of Hubble and its size is bigger than two double-decker buses.
In July last year, the telescope was able to capture ‘Webb’s First Deep Field’, the “deepest” and most detailed picture of the cosmos to date, depicting a galaxy cluster called SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago.
Only a month later, JWST captured new pictures of Jupiter that provide unprecedented detail of the planet’s inner life, including giant storms raging inside its atmosphere, powerful winds, auroras, and extreme temperature and pressure conditions.
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