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A star is born: Irish scientists capture a stellar birth using the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) view of stellar birth.  The Herbig-Haro 211 system, seen here in a near-infrared camera (NIRCam) image, is only a few thousand years old, yet it produces highly supersonic jets of hot molecular material that stretch into the surrounding cloud. The young star itself is still embedded in gas and dust and is located at the centre of the dark lane.

A team of astronomers led by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) have captured one of the most advanced images of a stellar birth ever taken. The research observations, which were led by Tom Ray, Senior Professor and Director of Cosmic Physics at DIAS were published today (2023-08-24) in Nature, the leading scientific journal.

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the image captures one of the youngest stars known to scientists, “Herbig-Haro 211-mm”, which is thought to be only a few thousand years old. The image was taken using the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on JWST and shows jets being emitted by the young star. 

Commenting on the discovery, Prof. Tom Ray, lead author of the research paper said: “Stars are not constant – they have a beginning and an end just like the rest of us, the process however takes thousands of millions of years. By developing our understanding about how they are born, through breakthroughs such as this, we are deepening our knowledge on how our sun and the solar system came into being.

“One very exciting discovery from this new image is that when a star comes into being it emits highly supersonic beams of matter that can stretch for several light-years. These beams resemble Star War light sabers and shine with light from many different atoms and molecules. 

“New stars are often enshrouded in gas and dust making it difficult for them to be spotted from Earth. The James Webb Telescope uses infrared light to penetrate through the gas and dust revealing stellar births and stars such as Herbig-Haro 211-mm. The research reveals that the very youngest stars appear to emit beams of almost pure molecules contrary to what astronomers thought before and move very slowly. How such beams are produced without the added ingredients of atoms and ions, is currently a mystery.”

Launched in December 2021, JWST is the world’s largest telescope. It is a collaborative mission between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). One of its main aims is to understand how stars and planets are formed. Over the course of its 10-year mission, JWST will collect more infrared light than any previous telescope, looking deeper into space to see the earliest stars, planets and galaxies in the universe, and study how they were formed.

As a result of their earlier involvement in the development of the telescope, astronomers at DIAS have guaranteed access to the Webb telescope to study star formation.

Professor Tom Ray played a key role in the initial development of JWST, in particular the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on board. MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph that observes mid to long infrared radiation. It also has a coronagraph, a specialised instrument designed to block out the light of a star. This enables the telescope to search for surrounding planets with an unprecedented level of detail.

The study of Herbig-Haro 211 was conducted as part of the JOYS (JWST Observations of Young protoStars) program. Funding for the DIAS involvement in JWST came from Enterprise Ireland. This research was also supported by the European Research Council.

The published research can be read in full here. The ESA photo release of another version of the image can also be viewed here. The image was selected by Nature’s photo team as one of September 2023’s sharpest shots, and a composite version of it was the cover image for it’s issue!