NASA’s newest deep-space observatory will soon turn its eyes to a relatively nearby region teeming with young stars.
The James Webb Space Telescope has almost completed commissioning and will release its first operational images on July 12. Next comes a program of early science, including a study of the Trapezium Cluster, a star formation in the Orion Nebula, about 1,350 light-years from Earth.
The cluster is full of gas and dust and includes about 1,000 young stars packed 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 the 4.5 billion year old Sun. While the star at the center of our solar system is in its midlife, the stars of Trapezium are infants, only about three or four days old.
“Astronomers using the Webb telescope will study this cluster to understand stars and their planetary systems in their earliest stages [of their evolution]’ officials wrote in a 2020 statement (opens in new tab) about the trapezoid study.
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A team led by Mark McCaughrean, Webb interdisciplinary scientist on star formation and senior adviser at the European Space Agency, plans to focus on three phenomena present in the Trapezium.
The first will be observing young objects, including brown dwarfs (bodies too small to ignite nuclear fusion at their cores but too large to be classified as planets) and free-floating planets that are not in orbit are around a star. These types of enigmatic objects could provide more clues as to how planets form, whether as part of star formation or by themselves, the consortium officials said in the statement (opens in new tab).
The second probe will study planet formation at early stages, using Webb’s infrared detectors to measure exoplanets that may be forming in young star disks.
“By comparison [Webb images] With visible-light images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the team will learn about the composition of the dust, which will help them understand the very first stages of planet formation,” the consortium explained.
The last of the three studies looks at jets and outflows from young stars, which the consortium officials said are an integral part of star formation.
“Because the Orion Nebula is home to many, many young stars, there are many large and small jets and outflows in the region,” the statement added. “The team will use Webb to measure the fine structures in these outflows and determine their velocity, 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 the objects being observed, allowing the telescope to see through dust and even spot bodies that aren’t particularly hot. In addition, the telescope’s position in space keeps it away from Earth’s atmosphere, which interferes with infrared observations, the consortium said.
McCaughrean added that he is fascinated by the dynamics of the Trapezium and stellar nurseries in general, and looks forward to Webb’s support in providing new views of these regions of star formation.
“We are very interested in understanding how stars and their planetary systems evolve in the earliest stages,” he said.