The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's latest space marvel, has offered us a glimpse into the secrets of the protostar nestled within the obsidian cloud L1527. This reveals a thrilling journey of stellar birth. The glowing clouds within the Taurus star-forming region, visible exclusively in infrared light, make an excellent subject for Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
This protostar is tucked away within the "neck" of the cloud, which takes an hourglass form. An edge-on protoplanetary disk, obscured within the cloud, bisects the neck. This intriguing setup allows light from the protostar to seep above and below the disk, illuminating cavities within the encompassing dust and gas.
As represented in this infrared image, the blue and orange clouds, the most conspicuous features of the region, delineate cavities created as matter is propelled from the protostar, colliding with the surrounding environment. The coloring results from varying thicknesses of dust between Webb and these clouds; blue regions indicate thinner dust layers, while thicker accumulations of dust reduce the escape of blue light, forming orange pockets.
Webb also uncovers filaments of molecular hydrogen jolted by the protostar's ejecting material. Such shocks and turbulence stymie new star formation that would otherwise proliferate throughout the cloud. Consequently, the protostar claims the limelight and much of the available material for itself.
Despite the turmoil stirred by L1527, it's a fledgling body at only around 100,000 years old. Given its age and notable far-infrared luminosity, as observed by initiatives like the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, it's classified as a class 0 protostar, an initial phase of star formation. These protostars, swaddled in a dark cloud of dust and gas, are yet to attain their stellar status. L1527 is still not capable of producing energy through hydrogen nuclear fusion, a key star feature. Its form, largely spherical yet unstable, resembles a tiny, heated, bloated gas cluster, accounting for around 20-40% of our Sun's mass.
As the protostar continually amasses mass, its core incrementally compacts and moves towards the stable nuclear fusion stage. This image captures L1527 in the midst of this process. The surrounding molecular cloud, constituted of dense dust and gas, is attracted to the central protostar. This spiralling inward motion creates a dense accretion disk, which continually feeds the protostar. As it gains mass and further compacts, the core temperature will escalate, eventually initiating nuclear fusion.
This accretion disk, visible as a dark band across the bright center, is roughly the size of our solar system. Given the density, it's common for the material to conglomerate, marking the onset of planetary formation. Ultimately, this view of L1527 offers a remarkable insight into what our Sun and solar system might have resembled in their infancy.