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NASA’s Webb Reveals New Features in Heart of Milky Way

Sagitarius C (NIRCam)
Credits:
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and S. Crowe (University of Virginia).

The latest image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows a portion of the dense center of our galaxy in unprecedented detail, including never-before-seen features astronomers have yet to explain. The star-forming region, named Sagittarius C (Sgr C), is about 300 light-years from the Milky Way’s central supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*.

Image: Sagitarius C (NIRCam)

The NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s reveals a portion of the Milky Way’s dense core in a new light. An estimated 500,000 stars shine in this image of the Sagittarius C (Sgr C) region, along with some as-yet unidentified features. A large region of ionized hydrogen, shown in cyan, contains intriguing needle-like structures that lack any uniform orientation.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, and S. Crowe (University of Virginia).

“There’s never been any infrared data on this region with the level of resolution and sensitivity we get with Webb, so we are seeing lots of features here for the first time,” said the observation team’s principal investigator Samuel Crowe, an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Webb reveals an incredible amount of detail, allowing us to study star formation in this sort of environment in a way that wasn’t possible previously.”

“The galactic center is the most extreme environment in our Milky Way galaxy, where current theories of star formation can be put to their most rigorous test,” added professor Jonathan Tan, one of Crowe’s advisors at the University of Virginia.

Protostars

Amid the estimated 500,000 stars in the image is a cluster of protostars – stars that are still forming and gaining mass – producing outflows that glow like a bonfire in the midst of an infrared-dark cloud. At the heart of this young cluster is a previously known, massive protostar over 30 times the mass of our Sun. The cloud the protostars are emerging from is so dense that the light from stars behind it cannot reach Webb, making it appear less crowded when in fact it is one of the most densely packed areas of the image. Smaller infrared-dark clouds dot the image, looking like holes in the starfield. That’s where future stars are forming.

Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument also captured large-scale emission from ionized hydrogen surrounding the lower side of the dark cloud, shown cyan-colored in the image. Typically, Crowe says, this is the result of energetic photons being emitted by young massive stars, but the vast extent of the region shown by Webb is something of a surprise that bears further investigation. Another feature of the region that Crowe plans to examine further is the needle-like structures in the ionized hydrogen, which appear oriented chaotically in many directions.

“The galactic center is a crowded, tumultuous place. There are turbulent, magnetized gas clouds that are forming stars, which then impact the surrounding gas with their outflowing winds, jets, and radiation,” said Rubén Fedriani, a co-investigator of the project at the Instituto Astrofísica de Andalucía in Spain. “Webb has provided us with a ton of data on this extreme environment, and we are just starting to dig into it.”

Image: Sagitarius C Features

Approximate outlines help to define the features in the Sagittarius C (Sgr C) region. Astronomers are studying data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to understand the relationship between these features, as well as other influences in the chaotic galaxy center.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Samuel Crowe (UVA)

Around 25,000 light-years from Earth, the galactic center is close enough to study individual stars with the Webb telescope, allowing astronomers to gather unprecedented information on how stars form, and how this process may depend on the cosmic environment, especially compared to other regions of the galaxy. For example, are more massive stars formed in the center of the Milky Way, as opposed to the edges of its spiral arms?

“The image from Webb is stunning, and the science we will get from it is even better,” Crowe said. “Massive stars are factories that produce heavy elements in their nuclear cores, so understanding them better is like learning the origin story of much of the universe.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Media Contacts

Laura Betzlaura.e.betz@nasa.gov, Rob Gutrorob.gutro@nasa.gov
NASA’s  Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Leah Ramsay lramsay@stsci.edu , Christine Pulliam cpulliam@stsci.edu

Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Downloads

Download full resolution images for this article from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Related Information

Star Formation

Piercing the Dark Birthplaces of Massive Stars with Webb

Our Milky Way

Webb Mission – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/

Webb News – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/latestnews/

Webb Images – https://science.nasa.gov/mission/webb/multimedia/images/

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