September 22, 2023

The image from the James Webb telescope shines on the anniversary of science

Rho Ophiuchi

Rho Ophiuchi

Happy First Science Birthday to the James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s been exactly one year since the super observatory was handed over to astronomers to use in anger.

And to celebrate, NASA has just released a spectacular image of one of the most photographed parts of the sky.

It’s the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, the closest star-forming region in space to us, just 400 light-years away.

Both professional and amateur stargazers enjoy looking at Rho Ophiuchi, which is located just to one side of the plane of the Milky Way.

What Webb shows us is only a small portion of this dense region of gas and dust, which you would expect given the telescope’s amazing resolution.

The entire image is about half a light-year across, or 4.7 tn km.

The eye is immediately drawn to the white nebula at the center left where a relatively young – a few million years old – star called S1 illuminates everything around it.

But look below for the red, bar-like feature that spans the entire image. This is an outflow of material from a protostar called VLA1623.

Very young stars – their ages measured in only thousands of years – will attract hydrogen gas and dust as they grow. But the dynamics involved mean that some of this material is also ejected to collide with and illuminate the nearby environment.



VLA1623 is such a budding star. It’s buried deep in the outflow and invisible to Webb’s infrared eyes. However, we know it’s there because telescopes sensitive to radio wavelengths have seen it.

They also detected two or three other similar protostars in the immediate vicinity that likely contribute to the outflow twists.

Once you realize what’s happening around VLA1623 in the image, you can pick up similar flows elsewhere in the Webb view. There are loads of them, which only illustrates how prolific this area of ​​space is.

JWST is a joint project between NASA and the European (ESA) and Canadian (CSA) space agencies.

It was launched on December 25, 2021, but engineers needed six months to set up the observatory and test all systems.

On July 12, 2022, we were shown the first color images.

Webb’s main goal is to trace the very first stars to shine in the universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and it has already shown that galaxies converged and matured much faster than anyone previously thought possible.

The telescope also has other purposes, one of which is to show us in detail how stars are made and how they give birth to planets. And that’s why Rho Ophiuchi is a fascinating target for the most powerful observatory in space.

“So much is happening in this spectacular image, as young stars splash vibrant colors across the clouds of gas and dust from which they are born,” said Prof. Mark McCaughrean, Esa’s senior advisor for science and exploration.

“Much of the bright red emission comes from jets of shocked molecular gas streaming at high speed from an unseen protostar, VLA1623, a star so young that many cave paintings date back to the Stone Age.

“JWST is set to revolutionize not only our view of how galaxies were born in the early universe, but also how stars and planets are made today, much closer to home in our own galaxy,” the astronomer told BBC News.

To underscore what a Webb marvel, the image below of the Rho Ophiuchi complex was obtained by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Spitzer, like Webb, was sensitive to infrared light. It was a very capable facility, but with a primary mirror only 85 cm in diameter, it could never achieve the kind of detail we now see with Webb’s 6.5 m primary mirror.

Rho Ophiuchi

Spitzer’s view: The position of the star S1 is marked by a red arrow

You can re-read the BBC’s coverage of Webb’s first color images release on 12 July 2022 by clicking here.

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