James Webb Space Telescope Sees Features Astronomers Have Yet to Explain

Astronomers explore an area of space packed with stars—and mysteries

A multitude of stars packed together in a dense region of space, shining brightly in the surrounding darkness. A bright blue cloud in the lower half of the image with pitch black patches appearing within the cloud
The full view of the James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) instrument reveals a 50 light-years-wide portion of the Milky Way’s center. A vast region of ionized hydrogen, shown in blue, wraps around an infrared-dark cloud, which is so dense it blocks the light from distant stars behind it. NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning image of a chaotic region of space near the center of our galaxy—around 25,000 light years away from Earth—including never-before-seen features astronomers have yet to explain. 

Launched on Christmas Day in 2021, the Webb Telescope is a gift that keeps on giving to astronomers. Designed to peer into the near-infrared spectrum, the powerful telescope, equipped with a mirror 21 feet in diameter, can see objects that were too faint or old to be seen by its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.

This Webb image (above), released in November 2023, shows an area of space named Sagittarius C, located about 300 light-years from the Milky Way’s central supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. An estimated 500,000 stars are packed into this region, as well as a cluster of proto-stars, which are stars that are still forming and gaining mass. At the heart of the cluster is a massive proto-star over 30 times the mass of our sun.

Astronomers say that observing Sagittarius C provides an opportunity to test current theories of star formation, potentially yielding answers to such questions as whether massive stars are more likely to form near the galactic center rather than the galaxy’s spiral arms.

“Massive stars are factories that produce heavy elements in their nuclear cores, so understanding them better is like learning the origin story of much of the universe,” said Samuel Crowe, principal investigator of the Webb observations.

The image of Sagittarius C includes phenomena that astronomers, for the time being, are unable to explain. The blue cloud of ionized hydrogen, for instance, is likely the result of young and massive stars releasing energetic photons, but astronomers were surprised by the vast size of the region and say it warrants further investigation. Astronomers are also puzzled by needle-like structures in the ionized hydrogen, which appear oriented chaotically in many directions.

This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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