JWST Reveals a Newly-Forming Double Protostar

This new Picture of the Month from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope reveals intricate details of the Herbig Haro object 797 (HH 797). HH 797 dominates the lower half of this image. The bright infrared objects in the upper portion of the image are thought to host two further protostars. This image was captured with Webb’s Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam). Image Credit: JWST/CSA/ESA/NASA

As our newest, most perceptive eye on the ongoing unfolding of the cosmos, the James Webb Space Telescope is revealing many things that were previously unseeable. One of the space telescope’s science goals is to expand our understanding of how stars form. The JWST has the power to see into the cocoons of gas and dust that hide young protostars.

It peered inside one of these cocoons and showed us that what we thought was a single star is actually a binary star.

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Seeing the Moment Planets Start to Form

ALMA captured this high-resolution image of the protoplanetary disk surrounding DG Taurus at a 1.3 mm wavelength. The young star is still embedded in its disk, and the smooth appearance, absent of ring-like structures, indicates a phase shortly before planets form. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), S. Ohashi, et al.

Nature makes few duplicates, and planets are as distinct from one another as snowflakes are. But planets all start out in the same circumstances: the whirling disks of material surrounding young stars. ALMA’s made great progress imaging these disks and the telltale gaps excavated by young, still-forming planets.

But new images from ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) show a star and disk so young that there are no telltale gaps in the disk. Is this the moment that planets start to form?

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It’s Like Looking at the Infant Sun: Webb Captures Image of an Energetic Young Star

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s high resolution, near-infrared look at Herbig-Haro 211 reveals exquisite detail of the outflow of a young star, an infantile analogue of our Sun. Image Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, Tom Ray (Dublin)

Ever wondered what our young Sun might have looked like in its infancy some five billion years ago?

The audacious JWST has captured an image of a very young star much like our young Sun, though the star itself is obscured. Instead, we see supersonic jets of gas. Young stars can blast out jets of material as they form, and the jets light up the surrounding gas. The luminous regions created by the jets as they slam into the gas are called Herbig-Haro Objects.

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Baby Gas Giants Cast Shadows on Their Siblings

A computer-generated image depicting a dark protostellar disk seen edge-on at 90 degrees to jets (orange) emanating from the poles of a young star. Such disks are thought to be the precursors of planetary systems, with planets forming as the dust coalesces. RIKEN researchers may have spotted embryos of gas giant planets in one protostellar disk. Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library

A team of astronomers has caught glimpses of gas giants forming around a very young star.

The nascent giants are having a chilling effect on their potential siblings.

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Planets Have Just Started to Form in This Binary System

Binary stars are common and imaging their planets will be a challenge. How can astronomers block all that light so they can see the planets? This artist's illustration shows the eclipsing binary star Kepler 16, as seen from the surface of an exoplanet in the system. Image Credit: NASA

Astronomers have watched the young binary star system SVS 13 for decades. Astronomers don’t know much about how planets form around proto-binary stars like SVS 13, and the earliest stages are especially mysterious. A new study based on three decades of research reveals three potentially planet-forming disks around the binary star.

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The Youngest Stellar Disk Ever Seen, Just 500,000 Years Old

IRS 63 Circumstellar Disk C. ALMA/ Segura-Cox et al. 2020

Unless you’re reading this in an aircraft or the International Space Station, then you’re currently residing on the surface of a planet. You’re here because the planet is here. But how did the planet get here? Like a rolling snowball picking up more snow, planets form from loose dust and gas surrounding young stars. As the planets orbit, their gravity draws in more of the lose material and they grow in mass. We’re not certain when the process of planet formation begins in orbit of new stars, but we have incredible new insights from one of the youngest solar systems ever observed called IRS 63.

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a nebula of gas and dust that is located in the constellation Ophiuchus. It is one of the closest star-forming regions to the Solar System and where the young star system IRS 63 was observed

Primordial Soup

Swirling in orbit of young stars (or protostars) are massive disks of dust and gas called circumstellar disks. These disks are dense enough to be opaque hiding young solar systems from visible light. However, energy emanating from the protostar heats the dust which then glows in infrared radiation which more easily penetrates obstructions than wavelengths of visible light. In fact, the degree to which a newly forming star system is observed in either visible or infrared light determines its classification. Class 0 protostars are completely enshrouded and can only be observed in submillimeter wavelengths corresponding to far-infrared and microwave light. Class I protostars, are observable in the far-infrared, Class II in near-infrared/red, and finally a Class III protostar’s surface and solar system can be observed in visible light as the remaining dust and gas is either blown away by the increasing energy of the star AND/OR has formed into PLANETS! That’s where we came from. That leftover material orbiting newly forming stars is what accumulates to form US. The whole process from Class 0 to Class III, when the solar system leaves its cocoon of dust and joins the galaxy, is about 10 million years. But at what stage does planet formation begin? The youngest circumstellar disks we’d observed are a million years old and had shown evidence that planetary formation had already begun. The recently observed IRS 63 is less than 500,000 years old – Class I – and shows signs of possible planet formation. The excitement? We were surprised to see evidence of planetary formation so early in the life of a solar system.

IRS 63 Circumstellar Disk C. ALMA/ Segura-Cox et al. 2020
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We’re Made of Starstuff. Especially From Extremely Massive Stars

An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. The solar system formed from such a disk. Astronomers suggest this birthplace was protected by a larger filament of molecular gas and dust early in history. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
An illustration of a protoplanetary disk. The solar system formed from such a disk. Astronomers suggest this birthplace was protected by a larger filament of molecular gas and dust early in history. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.

A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.

That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.

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Planets Form in Just a Few Hundred Thousand Years

Artist's conceptualization of the dusty TYC 8241 2652 system as it might have appeared several years ago when it was emitting large amounts of excess infrared radiation. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook. https://www.gemini.edu/node/11836

Astronomers like to observe young planets forming in circumstellar debris disks, the rotating rings of material around young stars. But when they measure the amount of material in those disks, they don’t contain enough material to form large planets. That discrepancy has puzzled astronomers.

The answer might come down to timing.

A new study suggests that planets form much quicker than astronomers think.

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This is a Binary Star in the Process of Formation

Zoom into the Ophiuchus molecular cloud, highlighting the star forming system IRAS 16293-2422 with the proto-star B in the upper right corner and the now clearly identified binary proto-stars A1 and A2 on the bottom left. The binary system is shown also in a further zoom-in panel. Image: © MPE; background: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2; Davide De Martin)

About 460 light years away lies the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. It’s a molecular cloud—an active star-forming region—and it’s one of the closest ones. R. Ophiuchi is a dark nebula, a region so thick with dust that the visible light from stars is almost completely obscured.

But scientists working with ALMA have pin-pointed a pair of young proto-stars inside all that dust, doing the busy work of becoming active stars.

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A Peek Inside NGC 7538

The active star forming region NGC 7538. Image by Fred Calvert/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF
The active star forming region NGC 7538. Image by Fred Calvert/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF


Often overshadowed by the more famous Bubble Nebula which lies nearby, NGC 7538 is an exciting emission and reflection nebula located in Cepheus. While it is often overlooked by amateur astronomers, professionals looking to study stellar formation find it an exciting target as it is the host to ongoing star formation, including the largest known protostar.

Because of the dusty nature of this region, studies targeting the nebula are frequently conducted in longer wavelengths, ranging from the infrared to the radio. Previous studies have put the age of the forming stars at around ~1-4 million years and at a distance of ~2.8 kiloparsecs. Within it, several individual sub groups of star formation seem to have occurred. Among some of the more interesting individual forming stars are NGC 7538S and MM 1.

Observations from earlier this year targeted NGC 7538S. This protostar is embedded in a collapsing core of approximately 85 – 115 solar masses and hosts a rotating accretion disc as well as large outflows of material. Although the star has not finished forming, the conditions are right for it to form into a high mass B star and is undergoing accretion at an unusually high rate of 1/1000th of a solar mass per year.

More recently another paper explores several other forming stars in the region including the massive MM 1. This star is already estimated to have accumulated 20-30 solar masses and be well on the way to forming an O class star. But it’s not done yet. Radial velocity measurements of molecules in the protostar’s vicinity indicate it’s still undergoing large amounts of accretion, mostly from its equatorial plane. Numerous studies have shown that this massive star is creating powerful jets.

In addition, this new study identifies an additional eight cores forming into young stars near MM 1. These cores are interesting because they exist in regions where the density and temperature were not expected to be sufficiently high to induce star formation. This suggests that their formation was not uniquely due to a self induced collapse, but rather, triggered by shock waves or magnetic fields. Although no studies have searched for the signs of magnetic fields in the region, there are indications that numerous shock waves exist. Additionally, four of these cores have mass available to them similar to that of MM 1 which may allow them to form into a grouping of high mass stars similar to the famous Trapezium in Orion. These stars all exist in a narrowly confined region of about 1 light year, which is also similar to the separation of the Trapezium. Many of the newly discovered cores have large outflows and maser emission as well.

Further studies on this region will certainly uncover new protostars and assist astronomers in understanding how clusters of stars form. Already, astronomers have used it to help probe the Initial Mass Function which describes the number of stars forming for various masses. Additionally, with small clusters of stars like the Trapezium being common, catching one in the act of forming may help astronomers determine just how they form.