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Rarely Seen Supernova Prelude Captured by NASA’s Webb Telescope

One of the first observations made by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in June 2022 was the uncommon sight of a Wolf-Rayet star, which is one of the brightest, largest, and briefly observable stars known. With the help of its potent infrared instruments, Webb reveals the star WR 124 in unprecedented detail. The star is located in the constellation Sagittarius 15,000 light-years distant.

Webb’s thorough studies of this uncommon phase are crucial to astronomers since massive stars speed through their lifecycles and only a few of them undergo a brief Wolf-Rayet phase before to going supernova. The conspicuous halos of gas and dust that surround Wolf-Rayet stars are the result of the stars’ process of shedding their outer layers.

The star WR 124 is 30 times as massive as the Sun and has so far expelled material equivalent to 10 Suns. Cosmic dust forms as the ejected gas cools and flows away from the star, and Webb can see this as it glows in the infrared light.

Astronomers are very interested in the genesis of cosmic dust since it can survive a supernova explosion and contribute to the total “dust budget” of the cosmos. Dust is essential to how the cosmos functions because it protects young stars, collects to help create planets, and provides a surface for molecules to assemble and clump together, including those that are the basis of life on Earth. Despite the several crucial roles that dust serves, the universe nevertheless contains more dust than what is currently predicted by dust-formation hypotheses. The budget for dust in the universe is surplus.

The details in cosmic dust, which can best be seen in infrared light, may now be studied thanks to Webb. The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on Webb strikes a balance between the bright star core of WR 124 and the intricate details in the surrounding gas. The star’s surrounding gas and dust nebula may be seen to have a clumpy structure thanks to the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the telescope. The topic of how much dust is produced in environments like WR 124 and whether the dust grains are large and plentiful enough to survive the supernova and contribute significantly to the total dust budget were simply not explored by dust-loving scientists until Webb. Now those questions can be investigated with real data.

Astronomers can better comprehend a vital moment in the universe’s early history by using stars like WR 124 as analogues. The heavy elements that are now ubiquitous in the modern age, including on Earth, were initially seeded in the newborn cosmos by similar dying stars that had been forging them in their cores.

A brief, chaotic period of transition is preserved forever in Webb’s fine-grained image of WR 124, and it heralds future discoveries that will shed light on the long-obscured mysteries of cosmic dust.

The best space scientific observatory in the world is the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, explore beyond to distant worlds orbiting other stars, and probe the fascinating architecture and origins of our universe and our role in it. The European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and NASA are all participants in the global effort known as Webb (Canadian Space Agency).

Jonathan Williams
Jonathan Williams
Jonathan Williams is a staff writer who focuses on stories about science and space. He gives short, helpful summaries of what's new in these fields, such as technological advances, new discoveries and explorations, and updates on major space missions. His reporting is mostly about breaking down complicated scientific ideas and explaining them in a way that anyone can understand. Bushman's work helps keep people up to date on the latest developments in science and space. It also helps people learn more about and appreciate these important fields.

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