Webb telescope spots star spewing bright supersonic jets

The space observatory has observed a dynamic environment around a young protostar as it accumulates mass on its path to becoming a Sun-like celestial body.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Webb's high resolution, near-infrared look at Herbig-Haro 211 reveals exquisite detail of the outflow of a young star.
Webb's high resolution, near-infrared look at Herbig-Haro 211 reveals exquisite detail of the outflow of a young star.

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, T. Ray (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)  

Since its launch, the advanced James Webb Space Telescope has unlocked previously concealed realms of the cosmos, beyond the reach of other telescopes.

One example is star-forming regions, often challenging to observe due to their location within densely populated clouds of gas and dust.

Scientists can now capture and examine such regions in unprecedented detail thanks to Webb's high-resolution infrared capabilities.  

The space observatory has now documented a vibrant and energetic environment surrounding a very young star (protostar) still accumulating mass on its journey toward becoming a massive celestial body akin to our Sun.

Webb's stunning new image unveils this protostar’s bipolar outflow. In the image, two directional jets blasted from the central star appear to be “knotty and wiggling,” and are collectively called Herbig-Haro 211. 

This star-forming region sits at a distance of 1,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Perseus.

This protostar is likely a binary star 

Herbig-Haro (HH) objects are luminous, supersonic bipolar jets of gas and dust typically associated with newborn stars. These transient objects arise when newly formed stars blast massive amounts of ionized plasma into space from their poles. 

The objects are named after astronomers George Herbig and Guillermo Haro, who examined and characterized them independently in the early twentieth century.

As per NASA’s official release, the new Webb infrared image depicts an outflow from a Class 0 protostar (not seen in the image). 

NASA describes it as "an infantile analog of our Sun when it was no more than a few tens of thousands of years old and with a mass only 8% of the present-day Sun (it will eventually grow into a star like the Sun)".

Webb's excellent infrared vision enabled it to capture the intricate details of these jets that would otherwise be covered by stellar material of the star-forming region. The Webb telescope captures far sharper features than earlier images of HH 211 acquired by other telescopes.

A narrow bipolar jet powers bow shocks in the southeast (lower-left) and northwest (upper-right) of the image. On both sides of the center protostar, the inner jet seems to have a mirrored wriggling pattern. 

"This is in agreement with observations on smaller scales and suggests that the protostar may in fact be an unresolved binary star," NASA added. A binary star system refers to a configuration in which two stars are mutually held together by gravitational forces.

Outflow speed is relatively slow

The information gathered by Webb's Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) instrument revealed that the bipolar jets exhibit considerably reduced speeds. These jets are composed of molecules like carbon monoxide, silicon monoxide, and molecular hydrogen. 

Earlier ground-based observations of HH 211 measured the speed of the bow shocks traveling away from us (northwest) and towards us (southeast). 

According to Webb's latest findings, the object's outflow is rather slow compared to more mature protostars with similar types of outflows.

The velocity of the innermost outflow structures was measured to be between 48 and 60 miles per second (80 and 100 kilometers per second). 

“However, the difference in velocity between these sections of the outflow and the leading material they’re colliding with — the shockwave — is much smaller,” NASA noted.

The team determined that the shock waves generated by the object lack the necessary energy to break molecules down into their individual atoms and ions.

These new Webb findings are critical for understanding star formation and the early phases of stellar life. 

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