Image of a star cluster more than 10 billion years old sheds light on the early stages of the universe

Scientists have been given an unprecedented glimpse into the birth of stars and the early stages of the universe, following the release of a new image showing a cluster more than 10 billion years ago by the James Webb space telescope.

The image shows a young star cluster known as NGC 346, located 200,000 light-years from Earth.

Scientists have taken a special interest in the cluster in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) because it resembles conditions in the early universe, when star formation was at its peak.

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Astronomers hope that studying the region may provide further answers to how the first stars formed during “cosmic noon,” just 2 or 3 billion years after the big bang.

Webb member of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK astronomy technology center, Dr. Olivia Jones is the lead author of an article featuring the images.

Jones said: “This is the first time we have been able to detect the star formation sequence of both low- and high-mass stars in another galaxy.

“This means we have a lot more data to work with at high resolution, giving us new insights into how the birth of stars shape their environment and more about the star formation process.”

The NGC 346 cluster contains protostars, clouds of gas and dust that turn into stars in space. Astronomers study them to better understand how stars form.

As gas and dust come together, it resembles slivers from the surrounding molecular cloud. The material is collected in a disk that feeds the central protostar.

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While astronomers have previously detected gas around protostars in this cluster, JWST’s observations have also detected dust.

JWST is the largest optical telescope in space and can be used to look at objects too old, distant or faint for the Hubble space telescope. It was launched into space on Christmas Day 2021.

In July 2022, the telescope provided high-resolution images of distant galaxies billions of years ago, and also captured an image of Jupiter’s giant gas planet showing the weather, moons, altitude levels, cloud cover and aurora.

Guido de Marchi, co-researcher of the research team at the European Space Agency, said: “We see the building blocks not only of stars, but potentially of planets as well.

“And because the Small Magellanic Cloud has a galaxy-like environment at cosmic noon, it’s possible that rocky planets formed earlier in the universe than we thought.”

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