In the depths of a small galaxy some 200,000 light-years from Earth, there are mysterious and primordial pockets of frenetic activity. But thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a star cluster in the dwarf galaxy is a little less mysterious, as is the process of star formation in the universe.
The new images and research were presented Wednesday as part of the 241st annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
What’s new – Scientists released a jaw-dropping new image from JWST on Wednesday that shows this raging activity in all its glory: purple, pink and orange filaments cut through the darkness of space to reveal the star-forming region NGC 346 .
The pink and orange filaments represent two types of hydrogen gas – one known as energized hydrogen, which is extremely hot, and the other known as molecular hydrogen, which is extremely cold. For context, energized hydrogen is about twice as hot as the Sun’s core, while molecular hydrogen is almost as cold as the surface of the icy dwarf planet Pluto. The clouds emanating from the filaments are dust. Together, the cold gas, dust, and other elements within the cluster create an ideal environment for stars to slowly accumulate material and form.
“We see the building blocks, not only of stars, but also potentially of planets,” says European Space Agency researcher Guido De Marchi in a statement posted on ESA’s JWST blog. Baby stars, known as “protostars,” were seen in NGC 346 before JWST, but never in such detail and specificity. In turn, JWST’s observations could lead to more discoveries in the region, the researchers say.
Why is it important – In NGC 346, which is located in a dwarf galaxy known as the Small Magellanic Cloud, conditions resemble a period in the history of the cosmos known as “cosmic noon.” Just as “strong noon” in the Wild West was the term given for the time of most violent activity, in the universe, “cosmic noon” is a time marked by the continuous and incessant formation of stars.
“A galaxy during cosmic noon would not have NGC 346 like the Small Magellanic Cloud,” astronomer Margaret Meixner explains in a statement released by the Webb Space Telescope team. “There would be thousands” of star forming regions like this.
Meixner is based at the Universities Space Research Association and is a lead investigator on the research team behind the new image.
“But even though NGC 346 is now the one and only furiously star-forming massive cluster in its galaxy, it presents us with an excellent opportunity to probe the conditions that were in place at cosmic noon.” .
And after – The research team’s work isn’t quite done: The telescope has also collected spectroscopic data from NGC 346 that could reveal more about the material, exactly, that powers the myriad baby stars within the planet. heap.
In turn, this information can tell us more about star formation in the universe and, closer to home, whether star formation in the Milky Way may differ from that found elsewhere in the cosmos. The star formation seen in NGC 346 resembles that seen in galaxies billions of years old since the earliest days of the universe – so it’s quite the template for learning more about our mysterious cosmos.
“Since the Small Magellanic Cloud has a galaxy-like environment during cosmic noon, it’s possible that rocky planets formed earlier in the universe than we thought,” De Marchi says in the same statement. .