NASA’s newest deep space observatory will soon set its sights on a relatively nearby region full of young stars.
The James Webb Space Telescope almost completed commissioning and will launch its first operative images July 12. A program of early scientific activity followed, including exploration of the Trapezium Cluster, a stellar nursery in the The Orion Nebula about 1,350 light years from Earth.
The cluster is packed with gas and dust and includes about 1,000 young stars crammed into an area just four light-years across, Webb Consortium officials said in a statement.
The stars are also quite young (about a million years old) compared to those 4.5 billion years old sun. While the star at the center of our solar system is in the middle of its life, the Trapezium stars are still toddlers, only about three or four days old.
“Astronomers using the Webb telescope will study this cluster to understand the stars and their planetary systems in their earliest stages [of their evolution],” employees wrote in 2020 statement (opens in new tab) about the Trapezium study.
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A team led by Mark McCaughrian, an interdisciplinary star formation web scientist and senior advisor at the European Space Agency, plans to focus on three phenomena present in the Trapezium.
The first will be the observation of young objects, including brown dwarfs (bodies that are too small to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores but too large to be classified as planets) and free-floating planets that do not orbit a star. These types of enigmatic objects could reveal more clues about how planets form, whether as part of star formation or on their own, consortium officials said in statement (opens in new tab).
The second probe will investigate early planet formation, using Webb’s infrared detectors to measure it exoplanets potentially forming in young stellar discs.
“By comparison [Webb images] with visible light images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, the team will learn about the composition of the dust, which will help them understand the earliest phases of planet formation,” the consortium said.
The last of the trio of studies concerns jets and outflows from young stars, which consortium officials say is an integral part of star formation.
“Because the Orion Nebula is home to many, many young stars, the region has many jets and outflows, large and small,” the statement added. “The team will use Webb to measure the fine structures in these outflows and determine their velocities, as well as assess their cumulative feedback on the surrounding star-forming clouds.”
Webb is perfectly optimized for such studies because it detects infrared light, essentially heat emitted by observed objects, allowing the telescope to peer through dust and even detect bodies that are not particularly hot. In addition, the telescope’s position in deep space keeps it away from Earth’s atmosphere, which hinders infrared observations, the consortium said.
McCaughrean added that he is intrigued by the dynamics of the Trapezium and about stellar nurseries more generally, and looks forward to Webb’s help in providing new views of these regions of stellar birth.
“We are very interested in understanding how stars and their planetary systems develop in the earliest stages,” he said.