Scientists using the James Webb Space Telescope, which is operated and controlled from Baltimore, have consistently produced groundbreaking research and stunning images from the farthest reaches of space.
The most recent batch of news from the Space Telescope Science Institute is no exception.
The outflow of a young star
The telescope captured a high-resolution look at nearby Herbig-Haro object, which is a luminous region surrounding a newborn star. The one in question, Herbig-Haro 211, is located in the constellation Perseus about 1,000 light-years away from Earth.
According to NASA, it’s one of the youngest and nearest Herbig-Haro objects, which makes it a prime target for the telescope.
The image from Webb shows an outflow of gas from a protostar (a young, still-forming star) in the middle of Herbig-Haro 211. The protostar resembles what our Sun looked like when it was just a few tens of thousands of years old and much, much smaller than it is now. NASA officials said it will eventually grow into a star like our Sun.
Researchers used Webb’s powerful near-infrared imaging to capture the details. It’s especially useful for images of young stars, NASA said, because young stellar objects are “invariably still embedded within the gas from the molecular cloud in which they formed.”
The emissions from the star create turbulent conditions in space, which emit infrared light that the Webb can see and use to produce an image.
A potentially habitable world
A short 120 light-years away is K2-18 b, a planet about 8.6 times as massive as Earth that orbits a star in the constellation Leo in the habitable zone — which means there could be liquid water on the surface.
The data collected from Webb revealed carbon-rich molecules like carbon dioxide and methane, and a shortage of ammonia, all of which, NASA said, indicates the planet could be ocean-covered with a hydrogen-rich atmosphere. That means it could be a type of “hypothetical” planet — hypothetical because they are not like any in our solar system — called a Hycean planet.
Some astronomers believe Hycean planets, if they exist, would be a key environment to search for life outside our solar system.
The initial observation from Webb also “provided a possible detection” of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide — one that, on Earth, is only produced by living organisms like phytoplankton. Researchers intend to use the Webb telescope to look at the planet again with different instruments to search for dimethyl sulfide.
“Our ultimate goal is the identification of life on a habitable exoplanet, which would transform our understanding of our place in the universe,” said Nikku Madhusudhan, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the paper announcing the results. “Our findings are a promising step towards a deeper understanding of Hycean worlds in this quest.”
New details in a supernova
Astronomers have been studying and observing Supernova 1987A since its initial discovery nearly 40 years ago. It was first seen by a scientist using a ground telescope as a bright star in the sky. Later, it was imaged using the Hubble Space Telescope and shown to have the shape of two overlapping rings.
Now, using the James Webb Space Telescope, scientists are able to tell more about the supernova’s structure and composition. Some of the structures within the object are only visible using the telescope’s near-infrared camera.
The new image shows a central keyhole-shaped mass in the center of the overlapping rings. It also shows small, crescent-like structures that are thought to be a part of the outer layers of gas shooting out from the supernova explosion.
Despite the decades of study since the supernova’s initial discovery, officials said, there are still mysteries, including the dense neutron star that should have formed in the aftermath of the supernova explosion. Webb will continue to observe the supernova over time, just as previous telescopes have.
The most distant star ever detected
Last year, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted the most distant star ever detected, which was nicknamed Earendel. It emitted its light within the universe’s first billion years and is located in the Sunrise Arc galaxy. This year, the Webb telescope was able to take a much closer look.
Scientists are only able to detect the star because of an effect in nature called gravitational lensing. Essentially, a galaxy cluster between Earth and Earendel that is so massive it “warps the fabric of space itself,” which allows astronomers to look through it like a magnifying glass.
The star is estimated to be twice as hot as our Sun and a million times more luminous, based on Webb’s observations, NASA said.
By looking at Earendel and other objects around it, scientists are able to get a better sense of how our own Milky Way galaxy may have looked during its formation billions of years ago.