Astronomers discover twin disks and jets from young stars

At left, a mid-infrared image of the rho Ophiuchi molecular cloud complex by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the focus pointing to star system WL20. At right, WL20 expands to reveal an artist’s impression of this new discovery. Credit: U.S. NSF/ NSF NRAO/B. Saxton.; NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA.

Astronomers have made an exciting discovery using two powerful telescopes: twin disks and jets erupting from a pair of young stars.

These findings, made possible by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO) Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST) Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), offer new insights into the early stages of star formation.

The universe is mostly invisible to the human eye, with many celestial phenomena only detectable in wavelengths outside the visible spectrum.

This is where ALMA and JWST come in. ALMA and MIRI observe different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum—radio and infrared, respectively.

By combining their data, astronomers discovered these twin features in the star system WL20, located in the rho Ophiuchi molecular cloud complex, over 400 light-years away from Earth.

“What we discovered was absolutely wild,” said astronomer Mary Barsony. “We’ve known about star system WL20 for a long time, but what caught our attention is that one of the stars appeared much younger than the rest.

Using MIRI and ALMA together, we saw that this one star was actually two stars right next to each other. Each star was surrounded by a disk, and each disk was emitting parallel jets.”

This composite image shows the data collected by ALMA and JWST. On the left, a combined image reveals the disks and parallel jets, while on the right, separate data from ALMA and JWST show the disks’ structure and the jets’ chemical composition.

ALMA detected the disks, and MIRI identified the jets. Valentin J.M. Le Gouellec of NASA-ARC analyzed ALMA’s data to reveal the disks’ composition, while Lukasz Tychoniec of Leiden Observatory provided high-resolution images showing the disks’ massive size, about 100 times the distance between Earth and the sun. Martijn L. van Gelder processed the data from MIRI, uncovering the jets’ chemical makeup.

“So if it weren’t for MIRI, we wouldn’t even know that these jets existed, which is amazing,” Barsony added. ALMA’s high-resolution observations showed the disks’ structure.

“Someone looking at this ALMA data not knowing there were twin jets would think it’s a large edge-on disk with a central hole instead of two edge-on disks and two jets. That’s pretty remarkable,” Barsony explained.

The discovery might not have happened if it weren’t for a fortunate coincidence. JPL scientist Michael Ressler shared, “A lot of research on binary protostars focuses on a few nearby star-forming regions. I had some observing time with JWST, and I decided to split it into a few small projects.

I chose to study binaries in the Perseus star-forming region. However, I had been studying WL20 in the rho Ophiuchus region for nearly 30 years and thought, ‘why not sneak it in?’ I’m never going to get another chance. We had a very fortunate accident with what we found, and the results are stunning.”

By combining data from ALMA and JWST, astronomers have gained new insights into the complex processes involved in forming multiple star systems.

They plan to use ALMA’s future upgrades, like the Wideband Sensitivity Upgrade, to continue unraveling the mysteries of star and planetary system formation. This discovery is a significant step forward in understanding the universe’s hidden wonders.

Source: KSR.