Clues to how first stars were formed in new James Webb space telescope image

'First time we can detect the full sequence of star formation' says UK Astronomy Technology Centre's Olivia Jones

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A new image from the James Webb space telescope is providing astronomers with new clues on how the first stars were born.

The image shows a young cluster of stars, NGC 346, which is more than 200,000 light years from Earth, in a dwarf galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC).

Astronomers believe this region could help shed light on how the first stars formed during the “cosmic noon” period, about two or three billion years after the Big Bang.

“We're seeing the building blocks, not only of stars but also potentially of planets,” said investigator Guido De Marchi, of the European Space Agency.

“And since the Small Magellanic Cloud has a similar environment to galaxies during cosmic noon, it's possible that rocky planets could have formed earlier in the Universe than we might have thought.”

The SMC, a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way, and NGC 346 houses clouds of gas and dust in space called protostars, that are developing into stars.

“This is the first time we can detect the full sequence of star formation of both low and high mass stars in another galaxy,” said Olivia Jones, from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

“This means we have far more data to study at high resolution, offering us new information on how the birth of stars shapes their environment and even greater insight into the star formation process.”

Studying protostars is the best way to understand how stars formed, the astronomers say.

As stars form, they gather gas and dust, which can look like ribbons from the surrounding molecular cloud. The material collects into a disc that feeds the central protostar.

NGC 346, a cluster of stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. Nasa

While astronomers have previously detected gas around protostars within NGC 346, the space telescope’s observations have also detected dust in these discs.

James Webb, the world’s most powerful space telescope, launched in December 2021 and has since been sending back unique views of the Universe.

It has provided remarkable images of Jupiter taken by the telescope’s near-infrared camera, which has special filters to make details of the planet visible.

Infrared instruments help capture radiant energy that is invisible to the human eye but can be detected as heat.

Other images include the Carina Nebula, which shows the birthplace of stars, and the Southern Ring Nebula, where stars are dying, expelling dust and gas in the process.

Updated: January 12, 2023, 12:21 PM