Thanks to its infrared capabilities, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) allows astronomers to peer through the gas and dust clogging the Milky Way’s center, revealing never-before-seen features.
One of the biggest mysteries is the star forming region called Sagittarius C, located about 300 light-years from the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.
An estimated 500,000 stars are forming in this region that’s being blasted by radiation from the densely packed stars. How can they form in such an intense environment?
Right now, astronomers can’t explain it.
“There’s never been any infrared data on this region with the level of resolution and sensitivity we get with Webb, so we are seeing lots of features here for the first time,” said the observation team’s principal investigator Samuel Crowe, an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
“Webb reveals an incredible amount of detail, allowing us to study star formation in this sort of environment in a way that wasn’t possible previously.”
The area shown in this image is about 50 light-years wide portion, and it lies about 25,000 light-years from Earth.
Crowe and his team say the galactic center is close enough so that JWST can study individual stars.
This allows for unprecedented information to be gathers on how stars can form in this area, compared to other regions of the galaxy.
For example, astronomers are wondering if more massive stars form in the center of the Milky Way, as opposed to the edges of its spiral arms.
There is one previously unknown enormous protostar, found at the heart of this young cluster. It is over 30 times the mass of our Sun.
The astronomers say that the cloud the protostars are emerging from is so dense that the light from stars behind it cannot reach the telescope, making it appear less crowded when in fact it is one of the most densely packed areas of the image.
Smaller infrared-dark clouds dot the image, looking like holes in the starfield. That’s where future stars are forming.
Another feature of the region that Crowe plans to examine further is the needle-like structures in the ionised hydrogen, which appear oriented chaotically in many directions.
“The image from Webb is stunning, and the science we will get from it is even better,” Crowe said.
“Massive stars are factories that produce heavy elements in their nuclear cores, so understanding them better is like learning the origin story of much of the universe.”