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Stunning JWST image proves we were right about how young stars form

It has long been thought that young stars forming near each other will be aligned in terms of their rotation, and observations from the James Webb Space Telescope have offered confirmation

By Leah Crane

20 June 2024

The Serpens Nebula

The Serpens Nebula: aligned jets are visible as a series of red streaks in the top left corner

NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (NASA-JPL), Joel Green (STScI)

Astronomers have caught the stars aligning. A new image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows the jets from young stars aligning with one another, finally proving a phenomenon that has long been assumed but never observed before.

As a colossal cloud of gas begins to collapse in on itself to form a star, its rotation increases, similar to the way an ice skater spins faster by pulling their arms close to their body. This spinning causes a disc of dust and gas to form around the young star at the centre of the cloud, feeding material into the cloud itself.

The powerful magnetic fields in the disc then create jets of material that blast away from the star along its spin axis, so we can use these jets to measure the direction of a young star’s spin. JWST images of the Serpens Nebula, which is about 1400 light years away, have revealed a clump of 12 of these baby stars, all with their jets pointing in roughly the same direction.

“Astronomers have long assumed that as clouds collapse to form stars, the stars will tend to spin in the same direction,” said Klaus Pontoppidan at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California in a statement. “However, this has not been seen so directly before.”

These new observations suggest that all of these stars inherited their rotation from the same long filament of gas. As time passes, the spins of these stars may change as they interact with one another and with other cosmic objects – which is apparent from the fact that another group of young stars in the same images of the Serpens Nebula, which seem to be slightly older, did not have aligned jets.

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