Stellar birth: Webb Space Telescope captures baby star close-up

The telescope, used to study the formation of the first stars and galaxies, marks its first anniversary with a new image.

James Webb
NASA released an image of the closest star-forming region to Earth to mark the one-year anniversary of the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope [NASA/The Associated Press]

The James Webb Space Telescope has marked one year of cosmic gazing with a stunning close-up photo of stars being born.

The US space agency, NASA, released its latest stellar photography on Wednesday, which provides a snapshot of 50 baby stars nestled in a cloud complex about 390 million light years away.

Scientists said the breathtaking shot provides the best clarity yet of this brief phase of a star’s life. It is a fitting one-year celebration for the telescope, which became fully operational on June 12, 2022, with the capability of peering farther back into the cosmos than any previous technology.

The telescope was designed to explore a period more than 13 billion years ago when the universe was about 100 millions years old and the first stars and galaxies were formed.

“Prepare to be awestruck!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted on Wednesday, saying the image “presents star birth as an impressionistic masterpiece”.

The pictured cloud complex, known as Rho Ophiuchi, is the closest star-forming region to Earth and is found in the sky near the border of the constellations Ophiuchus and Scorpius, the serpent bearer and scorpion.

With no stars in the foreground of the photo, NASA noted, the details of Rho Ophiuchi are crystal clear. Some of the stars display shadows, indicating possible planets in the making, according to NASA.

“Webb’s image of Rho Ophiuchi allows us to witness a very brief period in the stellar lifecycle with new clarity. Our own Sun experienced a phase like this, long ago, and now we have the technology to see the beginning of another’s star’s story,” Klaus Pontoppidan, who served as Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, said in a statement.

These handout photos provided by NASA on October 19, 2022 shows the Pillars of Creation that are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in NASA’s James Webb Space
Photos provided by NASA show the so-called Pillars of Creation as captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. [NASA/AFP]

Webb is the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever sent into space. It was first launched from French Guiana in South America in December 2021 and reached its operational location six months later. The first image from the telescope was released on July 11, 2022.

The nearly $10bn project was named after James Webb, who ran NASA during the Apollo space programme, which put humans on the moon in the 1960s. The programme is led by NASA in coordination with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

The Webb telescope, which is built to view its subjects chiefly in the infrared spectrum, is about 100 times more sensitive than its 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and operates mainly at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

In a statement, Webb Senior Project Scientist Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said the Webb telescope has “delivered a year of spectacular data and discoveries”.

“Webb’s science mission is just getting started,” she said. “There’s so much more to come.”

Beyond seeking a better understanding of the earliest stars and galaxies, Webb is also searching for any signs of life outside of Earth.

“We’ve already been using Webb to look at planets around other stars to see if we can analyze their atmospheres to see if they would be capable of hosting life,” NASA programme scientist Eric Smith told The Associated Press. “We haven’t found one of them yet, but we’re still only one year into the mission.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies