Imagine an hourglass where sand doesn’t move from top to bottom but just gathers at its neck point. This is what’s happening in this breathtaking new image from JWST. A protostar within the dark cloud L1527 has been seen gathering material from the nebula where it formed as well as carving out a space around it. The result is this snap from the space telescope that looks like it could be a painting.
The nebula’s incredible colors cannot be seen in visible light. Fortunately, JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) can detect not just the emission of the various heated structures it can see but the different colors that they emit.
In the image, the protostar (a very young star still gathering mass from its parent cloud) is not visible. The protoplanetary disk forming around the protostar is the thick dark line in the middle of the feature. We are seeing this system edge-on, and the protostar is hidden from view.
We may not see the protostar, but the effect of this object on its surroundings is dramatic. At this point, it has not begun nuclear fusion at its core, which will make it an official star and not a brown dwarf, which are failed stars. A protostar needs to steal material to grow big enough to start nuclear fusion. The light that shines comes from the shock of material hitting its surface at high speeds.
This robbery from the rest of the star-forming nebula needs to happen moderately quickly as the energy from the protostar will begin throwing some of the material off into space. Bubble-like structures are recent stellar ejections visible in the upper triangle of the hourglass. These eruptions lead to the carved space around the baby star and heat up hydrogen filaments like the one visible in the image. This stops other stars from forming as they can only form from cold gas that condensed and then collapsed on itself.
L1527 is an absolute cosmic baby. At about 100,000 years old, we are truly seeing the first formative moments of a star. It is considered a class 0 protostar, the very first step in the staircase to stardom. If we could see it, it would appear like a spherical clump of gas between one-fifth and two-fifths the mass of the Sun. The disk that creates the hourglass neck is actually the size of our Solar System.