The latest image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows an unprecedentedly detailed portion of the dense center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. The image reveals star-forming regions and features that astronomers have never observed before.

The region captured in the image is called Sagittarius C (Sgr C), located about 300 light-years from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way called Sagittarius A. According to Samuel Crowe, the lead researcher studying the image, We have never had infrared data of this resolution and sensitivity for this region before. So we are seeing many features here for the first time.

Crowe, an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, added that Webb reveals an incredible amount of detail, allowing us to study star formation in this type of environment in a way that was not previously possible. Star formation in the galactic center is an extreme environment that provides astronomers a rigorous test of current theories about how stars are born.

Among the 500,000 stars visible in the image is a cluster of protostars – stars still in the process of formation and gaining mass. These protostars produce flows that glow like campfires amid dark clouds when viewed in infrared light.

At the heart of this young cluster is a massive protostar 30 times more massive than our Sun. The protostellar cloud is so dense that light from stars behind it cannot reach the James Webb Telescope, making the region appear less populated when it is actually one of the densest areas in the image.

The image also reveals smaller dark clouds sprinkled throughout, appearing as holes in the star field – these are where future stars are currently forming. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera detected huge emission from ionized hydrogen surrounding the bottom of the dark cloud, shown in cyan.

According to Crowe, this emission is usually caused by energetic photons from young, massive stars, but the extensive region seen by Webb is a surprise that merits further investigation.

By capturing details of star formation in the galactic center that were previously impossible to see, the James Webb Space Telescope is revolutionizing our understanding of how stars are born in the extreme environment near the Milky Way’s central black hole.

This may provide clues about whether more massive stars preferentially form in the center versus spiral arms. According to Crowe, the image is stunning, and the science we will gain from it is even better. Massive stars are factories that produce heavy elements, so understanding them better tells us about the origins of much of the universe.


Sources

NASA’s Webb Reveals New Features in Heart of Milky Way (NASA)


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