For Want of a Tale

13 July 2023

JWST image of the star forming region Rho Ophiuchi. NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI)
JWST image of the star forming region Rho Ophiuchi.

Astronomy is driven by data. We take spectra of distant galaxies, plot the temperatures and brightness of main sequence stars, and graph the gravitational chirps of merging black holes. All of this data allows us to understand the universe around us. We don’t need images to do that, just data. But we still capture images even when we already have the data. We value them for their wondrous beauty, and for the stories they tell. This is why to celebrate a year of gathering data the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) released a stunningly beautiful image that also tells a wondrous tale.

The image is of a star-forming region within the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. It is just 460 light-years away and is one of the closest star-forming regions to Earth. In the image, you can see more than 50 small young stars. They have masses of no more than the Sun, and in time will drift into the galaxy to become their own stellar systems.

We know most of them will have planets because we can see many of them have the shadows of protoplanetary disks. Gas and dust swirling around the young stars out of which their planets will form. The image also shows bright stars that will clear away the clouds and drive the young stars from their stellar nursery. It is an image of cosmic creation.

Our solar system began in a star-forming region much like Rho Ophiuchi, about 5 billion years ago. This image tells the story of our own creation, and how everything we see around us once began. We are connected to the cosmos, which continues to create new stories and new worlds. It is both a powerful and humbling image.

The image also tells the story of the power of JWST, which is capable of observing the region at infrared wavelengths. These wavelengths highlight the heat of young stars and can penetrate deep into cold molecular clouds, giving us a much richer view of the region than mere optical wavelengths. Thus the image is not just a story of the cosmos, it is a tale of human ingenuity, and the human search for knowledge.

There is also plenty of data to be gathered from this image, but sometimes it is worth stepping back and taking in the view. As this image shows, the universe is powerful and perplexing, beautiful and awesome. All from a single JWST image.

Just think of how much more stories JWST will tell in the coming years.

For the full resolution images check out the JWST Website.