Webb Telescope Captures Protostar Creating Mesmerizing 'Hourglass' of Light

NASA scientists are seeing the beginnings of a new star within a spectacular hourglass, courtesy of an image captured by the James Webb Telescope.

On Wednesday, NASA released details of never-before-seen features of a protostar located within the dark cloud L1527. The Webb telescope's near-infrared camera was pivotal in bringing this image to literal light, due to the fiery clouds in the Taurus star-forming region only being visible in infrared light.

Dr. Klaus Pontoppidan, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, told Newsweek that the image is opaque without infrared light—such as if photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Webb telescope, however, can penetrate through dust and like a thermal camera can see through fog.

"It's amazing detail we have never seen before," Pontoppidan said.

The protostar, as Pontoppidan described, is a star that is still in process of growing and sucking gas and not quite having reached its end mass. In this image, it is hidden from view within the "neck" of the hourglass.

The dark line across the middle of the neck is an edge-on protoplanetary disk. Light from above and below the disk illuminates cavities within the surrounding gas and dust.

NASA said the blue clouds are where dust is thinnest, while thicker layers of dust—or where less blue light is able to escape—create pockets of orange. Cavities are created when material "shoots away from the protostar" and collides with surrounding matter.

NASA James Webb Telescope Protostar Hourglass Universe
The protostar within the dark cloud L1527, shown in this image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is embedded within a cloud of material feeding its growth. Ejections from the star have cleared out cavities above and below it, whose boundaries glow orange and blue in this infrared view. The upper central region displays bubble-like shapes due to stellar “burps,” or sporadic ejections. NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

The protostar's distance is about 500 light-years from Earth, which Pontoppidan said seems far but is actually one of the nearest young stars and about the average distance young systems form.

He said it's not all much unlike what the sun and the solar system itself looked like 4.6 billion years ago.

This is a class 0 protostar, the earliest stage of star formation, and is estimated to be about 100,000 years old. It "sounds like a lot but it's almost nothing in astronomy," Pontoppidan said.

Its existence has been known for decades due to its brightness, he added, but limited resolution made it previously look like a "blob."

He said this image is approximated to be 10 times sharper than images captured by the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which launched in 2003 and concluded operations in 2020.

The disk is about the size of our solar system, with clumped material coming together to form the beginnings of planets. NASA says it provides a window into what our Sun and solar system looked like in their infancy.

"Generally speaking, it teaches us about our origins," Pontoppidan said. "They work like time machines and let us go back in time to see how the universe was formed."

Not only do humans learn how physics work from such images, he said we also learn about where we come from and the universe around us.

Future images could look at molecules, like water or other material, landing on planets that one day form the "building blocks of life."