James Webb captures vast structure created by newborn stars

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Newborn stars are often active and glow brightly, but on some rare occasions, they can create something truly epic: a vast and bright two-lobed structure called a Herbig-Haro object.

These are formed when a new star gives off narrow jets of ionized gas, which shoot off in opposite directions and collide with nearby dust and gas. As the jets hit the material at speeds of hundreds of miles per second, they sculpt vast nebula-like clouds which can be hundreds of light-years across.

A high-resolution image of a tightly bound pair of actively forming stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, in near-infrared light.
The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has captured a high-resolution image of a tightly bound pair of actively forming stars, known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, in near-infrared light. Look for them at the center of the red diffraction spikes. The stars are buried deeply, appearing as an orange-white splotch. They are surrounded by a disc of gas and dust that continues to add to their mass. J. DePasquale (STScI) / NASA, ESA, CSA

This particular example of the phenomenon is called Herbig-Haro 46/47 and was recently captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. In fact, there are a pair of stars at the heart of this object, which is located around 1,470 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Vela, and which stretches for over 3 light-years. The stars are located right in the center of the object, in the orange region around which the central diffraction spikes appear. These diffraction spikes are caused by the way light bends around Webb’s hexagonal primary mirror.

As Webb looks in the infrared part of the spectrum, it gets a different view of the object from other telescopes such as Hubble which look primarily in the optical wavelength (the same wavelengths seen by the human eye). In the infrared image, you can see the orange lobes spreading out from the central stars — this is material from older ejections, as the stars have been sending out jets for thousands of years. The newer ejections from the stars are visible in threads of blue.

All of this occurs over a background of dusty blue nebula. This nebula affects the jets as well, as Webb scientists explain: “This nebula is significant — its presence influences the shapes of the jets shot out by the central stars. As ejected material rams into the nebula on the lower left, there is more opportunity for the jets to interact with molecules within the nebula, causing them both to light up.”

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