JWST Sees Furious Star Formation in a Stellar Nursery

Image of the Carina Nebula (NGC 3324) captured by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

The powerful James Webb Space Telescope is a mighty technological tool. Astrophysicists first conceived it over 20 years ago, and after many twists and turns, it was launched on December 2st, 2021. Now it’s in a halo orbit at the Sun-Earth L2 point, where it will hopefully continue operating for 20 years.

It’s only been a few months since its first images were released, and it’s already making progress in answering some of the Universe’s most compelling questions. In a newly-released image, the JWST peered deep inside massive clouds of gas and dust to watch young stars come to life in their stellar cocoons.

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Nearby Supernovae Exploded Just a few Million Years Ago, Leading to a Wave of Star Formation Around the Sun

Artist's illustration of the Local Bubble with star formation occurring on the bubble's surface. Scientists have now shown how a chain of events beginning 14 million years ago with a set of powerful supernovae led to the creation of the vast bubble, responsible for the formation of all young stars within 500 light years of the Sun and Earth. Credit: Leah Hustak (STScI)

The Sun isn’t the only star in this galactic neighbourhood. Other stars also call this neighbourhood home. But what’s the neighbourhood’s history? What triggered the birth of all those stars?

A team of astronomers say they’ve pieced the history together and identified the trigger: a series of supernovae explosions that began about 14 million years ago.

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What’s Snuffing Out Galaxies Before Their Time?

The VERTICO—Virgo Environment Traced in Carbon Monoxide—Survey observed the gas reservoirs in 51 galaxies in the nearby Virgo Cluster and found that the extreme environment in the cluster was killing galaxies by robbing them of their star-forming fuel. In this composite image, ALMA’s radio wavelength observations of the VERTICO galaxies’ molecular gas disks are magnified by a factor of 20. They are overlaid on the X-ray image of the hot plasma within the Virgo Cluster. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/S. Dagnello (NRAO)/Böhringer et al. (ROSAT All-Sky Survey)

In the Milky Way, the formation rate of stars is about one solar mass every year. About 10 billion years ago, it was ten solar masses every year. What happened?

Stars are born in giant molecular clouds (GMCs), and astronomers think that the environment in galaxies affects these clouds and their ability to spawn new stars. Sometimes the environment is so extreme that entire galaxies stop forming new stars.

Astronomers call this “quenching,” and they want to know what causes it.

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Where are Stars Born?

Spitzer Uncovers Star Hatchery
Spitzer Uncovers Star Hatchery

Have you ever wondered where stars are born? Stars are formed in nebulas, interstellar clouds of dust and gas. Nebulas are either remnants of matter from the original big bang or the result of stars either collapsing or going supernova. Nebulas have long been noted and observed by astronomers but very little was known about them until the 21st century.

Galaxies because of their similar appearance were once thought of as nebulas. It was later determined that they were actually larger grouping of stars a great distance away from the Earth. So how are Nebulas star forming regions? The answers lie in the gravitational force and nuclear fusion.

Most nebulas are disparate clouds of gas and cosmic dust floating in the interstellar medium. Nebulas are the more dense parts of the gas and dust that exist in the space between stars and galaxies. We know due to the law of universal gravitation that every particle in the universe exerts an attractive force on every other particle. This happens over times with nebulas as the particles that make up the interstellar medium start to gather together.

Since gases have mass it is inevitable that the process will continue as great mass will create a stronger gravitational field. At some undefined point in time a tipping point between the gas pressure and the gravity of the nebula is crossed and the nebula collapses under its own gravity. Since molecular hydrogen is the most abundant element in the nebula the pressure from the collapse causes the nebula to undergo nuclear fusion. This starts the birth of a star.

As evidenced by how many stars and galaxies are in the universe you can see that is process that happens just about everywhere. More recently scientists have started become interested in how common it is for stars to from planets, especially those that are likely to support life. Scientists have recently discovered one such planet Gliese 581-g. This planet while closer to it star than Earth is well with in habitable zone necessary for liquid water and the right temperatures for life to occur.

The study of nebulas and the interstellar medium have yielded a lot important information about the formation and stars. As better telescopes and probes are created we will get a clearer picture about our universe and how it was formed and continues to grow over time.

We have written many articles about the birth of stars for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the star birth myth, and here’s an article about the birth of the biggest stars.

If you’d like more information on stars, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and here’s the stars and galaxies homepage.

We’ve done many episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Listen here, Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From?


Horsehead Nebula

Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead nebula is a dark nebula that looks like a horse’s head! It is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud complex, and has the more correct, if boring, name Barnard 33 (being object number 33 in a catalog of dark nebulae, by Barnard).

It is about 1500 light-years away, and is itself dark because of the dust of which it’s made (it’s also made up of gas, in fact it’s mostly gas, but the gas is essentially transparent). What makes it so obvious is the diffuse glow from behind it; the glow is red – due to the Balmer Hα line, a prominent atomic transition in hydrogen – and is powered by the UV light from the nearby star, Sigma Orionis (which is actually a five-star system), which ionizes the hydrogen gas in this part of the Orion Complex.

The first record of its shape is from 1888, by Williamina Fleming, who noticed it on a photographic plate taken at the Harvard College Observatory (Fleming made significant contributions to astronomy, including cataloguing many of the stars in the famous Henry Draper Catalogue). The Horsehead nebula is a favorite of amateur astronomers, especially astrophotographers (it’s quite difficult to spot visually).

The Horsehead nebula is similar to the Pillars of Creation (in M16), though perhaps not as dense; one day it too will be eroded by the intense UV from the young stars in its vicinity, and from new-born stars formed within it (the bright area at the top left is light from just such a star).

In 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope Institute asked the public to vote for an astronomical target for the Hubble Space Telescope to observe, a sort of Universe Idol contest … the Horsehead nebula was the clear winner! Hands up all of you who have, or have had, the Hubble’s image of the Horsehead as your wallpaper, or perhaps the VLT one

Universe Today has, among its stories, some good background on the Horsehead; for example Dark Knight Ahead – B33 by Gordon Haynes, Astrophoto: The Horsehead Nebula by Filippo Ciferri, and What’s Up This Week – Jan 3 – Jan 9, 2005.

The Astronomy Cast episode Nebulae explains the role of dark nebulae, such as the Horsehead, in starbirth; well worth a listen.

Sources: NASA APOD, Wikipedia

Star-Birth Myth Shattered


An international team of astronomers has debunked a long-held belief about how stars are formed.

Since the 1950’s, astronomers believed groups of new-born stars obeyed the same rules of star formation, which meant the ratio of massive stars to lighter stars was pretty much the same from galaxy to galaxy.  For every star 20 times more massive than the Sun or larger, for example, there’d be 500 stars equal to or less than the mass of the Sun.

“This was a really useful idea. Unfortunately it seems not to be true,” said team research leader Dr. Gerhardt Meurer of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

This mass distribution of newly-born stars is called the ‘initial mass function’, or IMF.  Most of the light we see from galaxies comes from the highest mass stars, while the total mass in stars is dominated by the lower mass stars which can’t be seen, so the IMF has implications in accurately determining the mass of galaxies.  By measuring the amount of light from a population of stars, and making some corrections for the stars’ ages, astronomers can use the IMF to estimate the total mass of that population of stars.

Results for different galaxies can be compared only if the IMF is the same everywhere, but Dr. Meurer’s team has shown this ratio of high-mass to low-mass newborn stars differs between galaxies.  Small ‘dwarf’ galaxies, for instance, form many more low-mass stars than expected.

To arrive at this finding, Dr. Meurer’s team used galaxies in the HIPASS Survey (HI Parkes All Sky Survey) done with the Parkes radio telescope near Sydney, Australia.  A radio survey was used because galaxies contain substantial amounts of neutral hydrogen gas, the raw material for forming stars, and the neutral hydrogen emits radio waves.

The team measured two tracers of star formation, ultraviolet and H-alpha emissions, in 103 of the survey galaxies using NASA’s GALEX satellite and the 1.5-m CTIO optical telescope in Chile.

Selecting galaxies on the basis of their neutral hydrogen gave a sample of galaxies of many different shapes and sizes, unbiased by their star formation history.

H-alpha emission traces the presence of very massive stars called O stars, the birth of a star with a mass more than 20 times that of the Sun.

The UV emission, traces both O stars and the less massive B stars — overall, stars more than three times the mass of the Sun.

Meurer’s team found the ratio of H-alpha to UV emission varied from galaxy to galaxy, implying the IMF also did, at least at its upper end.

“This is complicated work, and we’ve necessarily had to take into account many factors that affect the ratio of H-alpha to UV emission, such as the fact that B stars live much longer than O stars,” Dr. Meurer said.

Dr. Meurer’s team suggests the IMF seems to be sensitive to the physical conditions of the star-forming region, particularly gas pressure.  For instance, massive stars are most likely to form in high-pressure environments such as tightly bound star clusters.

The team’s results allow a better understanding of other recently observed phenomena that have been puzzling astronomers, such as variation of the ratio of H-alpha to ultraviolet light as a function of radius within some galaxies.  This now makes sense as the stellar mix varies as the pressure drops with radius, just like the pressure varies with altitude on the Earth.

The work confirms tentative suggestions made first by Veronique Buat and collaborators in France in 1987, and then a more substantial study last year by Eric Hoversteen and Karl Glazebrook working out of Johns Hopkins and Swinburne Universities that suggested the same result.

Source: CSIRO