James Webb Space Telescope captures new details of Milky Way

Observations will help researchers deepen their understanding of star formation

The James Webb Space Telescope captured new images of the heart of the Milky Way. Photo: Nasa
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One of the world's most advanced telescopes has captured new images of the centre of the Milky Way galaxy, helping astronomers to learn how stars form in more detail than ever before.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021, has powerful cameras and highly sensitive instruments that allow it to view objects in space that older technology could not pick up.

Using a technique called infrared astronomy, it has now taken images of a region in the galaxy, called Sagittarius C, which shows about 500,000 stars and some unidentified features that researchers will now analyse in more detail.

The observations by the $10 billion telescope were close enough to study each star individually, even though Sagittarius C is situated 25,000 light years away from Earth.

“There’s never been any infrared data on this region with the level of resolution and sensitivity we get with Webb, so we are seeing lots of features here for the first time,” said Samuel Crowe, the observation team’s principal investigator at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“Webb reveals an incredible amount of detail, allowing us to study star formation in this sort of environment in a way that wasn’t possible previously.”

The galactic centre is the most extreme environment in the Milky Way. It is hoped that understanding more about it will help astronomers test their theories on star formation.

The new images also reveal a cluster of protostars – stars that are still forming – but the cloud these are emerging from is so dense that the light from the cluster cannot reach the Webb telescope.

Nasa said that even though it looks less crowded in the image, it is one of the most densely-packed areas.

The telescope’s near-infrared camera also captured large emissions of ionised hydrogen surrounding the lower side of the cloud.

This is normally the result of energy being emitted by young, enormous stars but the scale of the emissions has surprised scientists – meaning further investigations will follow.

“The galactic centre is a crowded, tumultuous place,” said Ruben Fedriani, a co-investigator of the project at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Spain.

“There are turbulent, magnetised gas clouds that are forming stars, which then impact the surrounding gas with their outflowing winds, jets and radiation.

“Webb has provided us with a ton of data on this extreme environment, and we are just starting to dig into it.”

Through the observations, researchers will also be able to study how star formation in the galactic centre depends on the cosmic environment in comparison to other regions of the galaxy.

The telescope was launched on Christmas Day, 2021, to help reveal secrets of the universe and how it was formed.

The first image from it was revealed by US President Joe Biden on July 11, 2022. It showed the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it was 4.6 billion years ago.

Researchers have also been using the telescope to learn more about the solar system and its planets.

Updated: November 21, 2023, 11:00 AM