This is the last discussion in my series on the first wave of JWST images. If you have followed along on my journey of exploration through these incredible images, thanks for hanging with me! So far, we’ve used Webb’s images to discuss incomprehensible numbers of distant galaxies, exoplanet atmospheres, arm-wrestling galaxies, dying stars, and the warpage of space due to gravitational lenses. Today, I’m going to talk about the birth of stars, which is prominently illustrated in the JSWT image entitled “Cosmic Cliffs.”
This cosmic scene is part of the Carina Nebula and is only visible from the southern hemisphere. Too bad so sad for us northerners. This region is arguably one of the most photogenic deep sky areas in all the night sky with numerous stunning targets that can be imaged even by rouge amateurs like me. This Webb image is but a tiny fraction of the Carina Nebula. The wall of orange color at the bottom is a massive stellar nursery. Stars are being born here. Let’s talk about how that happens. It’s a fascinating process. Without it, we wouldn’t be here.
The process begins with clouds of dust and debris, but you need gravity to turn this chaotic stew into a shining star like our Sun. Under the influence of gravity, the dust and debris slowly swirl and condense. Condensation increases gravity, which leads to the collection of more debris. More debris, more gravity, and the swirling continues. Mind you, this is happening on a massive scale. Think the formation of our Sun and all its planets.
After a while, the dust becomes so dense that it heats up under the intense pressure. However, gravity is relentless. It continues to pull the material inward, making it denser and denser until, under tremendous pressure, the material collapses on itself. This is the spark that ignites the process of nuclear fusion, which converts two hydrogen atoms into a helium atom. A star is born. Gravity pulling in; nuclear fusion pushing out. This tug of war is the fundamental life force for all stars. A star like our Sun can do this for billions of years.
OK, back to our image. With Webb’s ability to detect infrared light, we can now peer deeply into dense clouds of dust like never before. This allows us to study stars much earlier in their life cycle. To those with eyes trained for such things, this image reveals many newborn stars for the first time. And it’s a lovely image to boot!