James Webb Space Telescope preparing to see starbirth in high definition

This image shows a color composite of near-infrared images of the central regions of the Orion Nebula, including the Trapezium Cluster.
This image shows a color composite of near-infrared images of the central regions of the Orion Nebula, including the Trapezium Cluster. (Image credit: ESO)

NASA's newest deep space observatory will soon turn its eyes to a relatively nearby region bursting with young stars.

The James Webb Space Telescope has almost completed commissioning and will release its first operational images July 12. Next comes a program of early science, including an investigation of the Trapezium Cluster, a stellar nursery in the Orion Nebula some 1,350 light-years from Earth.

The cluster is packed with gas and dust and includes about 1,000 young stars jam-packed into an area just four light-years across, officials with the Webb consortium said in a statement. 

The stars are also quite young (around a million years old) compared with the 4.5-billion-year-old sun. While the star at the center of our solar system is in its midlife, Trapezium's stars are still toddlers, only about three or four days old.

"Astronomers using the Webb telescope will study this cluster to understand stars and their planetary systems in the very earliest stages [of their evolution]," officials wrote in a 2020 statement (opens in new tab) about the Trapezium study.

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A team led by Mark McCaughrean, the Webb interdisciplinary scientist for star formation and senior advisor at the European Space Agency, plans to focus on three phenomena present in Trapezium.

The first will be observing young objects, including brown dwarfs (bodies that were too small to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores but too large to be classified as planets) and free-floating planets not in orbit around a star. These types of enigmatic objects could reveal more clues as to how planets form, whether as a part of star formation or by themselves, the consortium officials said in the statement (opens in new tab).

The second investigation will study planet formation in early phases, which will use Webb's infrared detectors to measure exoplanets potentially forming in young stellar discs.

"By comparing [Webb images] with images in the visible light made with the Hubble Space Telescope, the team will learn about the dust's composition, which will help them understand the very earliest phases of planet formation," the consortium stated.

The last of the trio of studies concerns jet and outflows from young stars, which the consortium officials said is integral to star formation.

"Because the Orion Nebula is home to many, many young stars, there are many jets and outflows in the region, both large and small," the statement added. "The team will use Webb to measure the fine structures in these outflows and determine their speeds, as well as assess their cumulative feedback on the surrounding star-forming clouds."

Webb is perfectly optimized for such studies as it detects infrared light, essentially heat emitted by the observed objects, which enables the telescope to peer through dust and even detect bodies that are not particularly hot. Moreover, the telescope's position in deep space keeps it away from Earth's atmosphere, which interferes with infrared observations, the consortium said.

McCaughrean added he is intrigued about the dynamics of Trapezium and about stellar nurseries more generally, and looks forward to Webb's assistance in providing new views of these areas of starbirth. 

"We're very interested in understanding how stars and their planetary systems develop in the very earliest stages," he said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace