Happy 4th of July! A baby star creates red, white and blue fireworks in a new JWST image

Just in time for Independence Day, NASA has released a stunning image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that shows incredible red, white and blue fireworks erupting in the cosmos.

While the United States is celebrating its birthday, this cosmic “red rocket design” is the violent eruption of a baby star at the heart of the blue and white cloud of gas and dust, or nebula, that gave birth to it. The nebula in question is called L1527, located about 460 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

Like a cosmic butterfly, the central “body” of the nebula is a glowing protostar, which is estimated to be about 100,000 years old. If that seems ancient – and it certainly is, compared to the 248-year-old United States – remember that our star, the sun, and the solar system around it are over 4.5 billion years old.

In fact, the stellar object at the core of this nebula is not even a full star yet. These cosmic fireworks mark the process by which the protostar transforms into a main sequence star like the sun.

Birth of a nation and birth of a star

Stars are born from large molecular clouds when dense patches gather more and more mass, eventually collapsing under their own gravity. This creates a protostar, which then continues to remove material from the post-birth cloud of gas and dust left over from the molecular cloud that gave it birth.

This process continues until the protostar has accumulated enough mass for the pressure and temperature in its core to become great enough to fuel the nuclear fusion of hydrogen with helium.

This is the process responsible for the vast majority of the energy pumped out by stars, and is also the process that defines what a “main sequence” star is.

Related: Forbidden black holes and ancient stars are hidden in these ‘little red dots’ (image)

illustration of a cloud of gas and dust in deep space collapsing to form a star

illustration of a cloud of gas and dust in deep space collapsing to form a star

The new observation of L1527 was made and reported by the JWST Mid-Infrared Instrument. In the image, the white and blue “lobes” extending from the central region are emitting outflows in opposite directions along the rotating axis of the prostate as it consumes gas and dust from its natal cocoon to facilitate its growth.

The outflows are creating shock waves called “bowshocks” in the molecular gas around the prostate. These bowshocks are similar to the curved ridges of water that result from the movement of boats in seas, rivers and lakes on Earth.

These turbulent regions are glowing compared to the dark gas of the rest of the region because the gas there is being energized, or “excited,” by these bowshocks. The blue regions represent turbulent gas dominated by carbon-based molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

At the heart of this emerging cosmic butterfly, the JWST image shows a dark line that represents a disc of material surrounding the protostar and gradually giving it away.

The central region is white due to sporadic “stellar burps” of material from this feeding infant star. This white glow above and below the central protostar indicates that a mixture of ionized neon and thick dust is being driven away from the messy feeding protostar. The red spiky smear around the prostate is an artifact of JWST optics.

An upside down orange cone connected to a mostly blue cone by a red sphereAn upside down orange cone connected to a mostly blue cone by a red sphere

An upside down orange cone connected to a mostly blue cone by a red sphere

This is not JWST’s first attempt to image this infant star and its gaseous crib. In November 2022, the powerful space telescope observed L1527 with its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument. The image is a bit less patriotic than the MIRI version, with mostly orange hues, although the central star remains red, and the base “wing” of this distorted cosmic butterfly is blue.

As protostar L1527 continues to age and transform into a mature main-sequence star, it will continue to eat away the material around it. The growing star will also release energetic jets and radiation that push away much of this molecular cloud. As a result, many of the structures seen in the MIRI and NIRCam images will shrink.

When the transformation is done, this beautiful Cosmic butterfly will disappear, and the star itself will be much clearer.


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Using two instruments to observe L1527 in both the near-infrared and mid-infrared views, JWST revealed the complexities of the system’s behavior, including how the central protostar affects the surrounding region.

Many more stars are being born in the Taurus molecular cloud complex, a stellar nursery of hundreds of newly formed stars, where L1527 resides. Stars like this could influence this complex and prevent other stars from forming by interfering with the wider molecular cloud while asserting its own independence.

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