A new image captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, specifically using its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). The image features NGC 346, which is the brightest and largest region where new stars are forming within the Small Magellanic Cloud.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s key capability is to provide astronomers with highly detailed views of regions where new stars are in the process of being born. In this specific image, colorful filaments of dust within the star-forming region are highlighted, and it was managed through launch by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This telescope allows scientists to study and better understand the processes of star formation in great detail.
The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. It can be seen with the naked eye in the southern constellation Tucana. One distinctive characteristic of the SMC is that it is relatively more primitive compared to the Milky Way. This means it has fewer heavy elements, which are typically formed in stars through processes like nuclear fusion and supernova explosions.
Traditionally, scientists expected the SMC to contain very little cosmic dust because dust particles are composed of heavy elements like silicon and oxygen. However, recent images captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, particularly with the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), have revealed the presence of ample dust within the SMC. This finding challenges earlier assumptions and suggests that there is more dust in this region than previously thought, as confirmed by both the MIRI image and an earlier image from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera.
In this representative-color image from Webb, different features are highlighted with different colors:
(1) Blue tendrils: These represent emissions from materials containing dusty silicates and sooty chemical molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These materials are often associated with the presence of cosmic dust.
(2) Red emission: The more diffuse red areas result from warm dust that is heated by the intense radiation from the brightest and most massive stars located in the central region of the depicted area.
(3) Arc at the center left: This arc may be a reflection of light coming from the star near its center. Similar, fainter arcs can be seen near stars at the lower left and upper right.
(4) Bright patches and filaments: These mark regions with a high concentration of protostars. The research team specifically searched for the reddest stars in this image and identified 1,001 pinpoint sources of light. Most of these pinpoint sources are young stars that are still embedded within their dusty cocoons, in the early stages of their formation.
By using data from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in both the near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths, astronomers can obtain a more comprehensive survey of the stars and protostars within the depicted dynamic region (likely referring to the Small Magellanic Cloud). This combined data provides a more detailed understanding of the celestial objects within this area.
The implications of this research extend beyond the immediate region. They are significant for our understanding of galaxies that existed billions of years ago during a period known as “cosmic noon.” At that time, star formation in the universe was at its peak, and the concentration of heavy elements was lower, similar to what we observe in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). By studying regions like the SMC, astronomers can gain insights into the conditions and processes that prevailed in galaxies during the cosmic noon, helping to expand our understanding of the universe’s history and evolution.