There are approximately 500,000 stars in this James Webb Space Telescope image of the Sagittarius C region of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI
(CNN) -- The James Webb Space Telescope took a look at the heart of the Milky Way, unveiling new features and mysteries within the chaotic region that could help astronomers unravel more details about the early universe.
The space observatory's ability to see the universe in infrared light, invisible to the human eye, captured never-before-seen details in the image, released Monday by NASA.
Astronomers used Webb to glimpse Sagittarius C, or Sgr C, an active star-forming region located about 300 light-years from the central supermassive black hole in the galaxy Sagittarius A*. A light-year, equivalent to 9.46 trillion kilometers, is the distance a beam of light travels in a year.
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"Webb's image is stunning, and the science we'll get from it is even better," Samuel Crowe, principal investigator of the observations and an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, said in a statement. "Massive stars are factories that produce heavy elements in their nuclear cores, so understanding them better is like knowing the origin story of much of the universe."
Studying the center of the Milky Way with the Webb telescope could provide insight into how many stars form there and whether massive stars are more likely to form near the galactic center rather than in the galaxy's spiral arms.
"There's never been infrared data over this region with the level of resolution and sensitivity that we get with Webb, so we're seeing a lot of features here for the first time," Crowe said. "Webb reveals an incredible amount of detail, allowing us to study star formation in this kind of environment in a way that wasn't possible previously."
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Young Stars and Dynamic Emissions
There are an estimated 500,000 stars shining in the image, all of varying sizes and ages. Among them is a cluster of protostars, or dense masses of dust and gas that are still developing and developing into adult stars, including a massive protostar at the center of the cluster that is more than 30 times the mass of the Sun.
The protostars release incandescent material, creating balls of light that emerge from the formation, which appears dramatically dark in infrared light.
"The galactic center is the most extreme environment in our Milky Way, where current theories about star formation can be put to the test at their most rigorous," Jonathan Tan, a research professor of astronomy and one of Crowe's advisors at the University of Virginia, said in a statement.
In addition, the observatory's near-infrared camera detected ionized hydrogen emissions around the lower edge of the stellar region, depicted in cyan color in the image.
Astronomers are still trying to determine what has created the enormous amount of energized gas, which exceeds what would normally be released by massive young stars. The observing team is also intrigued by the needle-like structures inside ionized hydrogen that are arranged in a random order.
"The galactic center is a crowded and tumultuous place. There are turbulent and magnetized gas clouds that are forming stars, which then impact the surrounding gas with their outflow winds, jets and radiation," Rubén Fedriani, a co-investigator on the project and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Astrophysical Institute of Andalusia in Spain, said in a statement. "Webb has provided us with a ton of data about this extreme environment, and we're just beginning to dig into it."
Webb Milky Way Telescope