A stunning image from the James Webb Space Telescope captures a rare sight: a massive star on the brink of death rocketing up to explode in a supernova.
NASA shared the image on Tuesday. It shows that the star has ejected its outer material, slowly building a knotted, layered halo of gas and dust around itself.
As the ejected gas moves away from the star, it cools and forms a cloud, or “nebula,” that glows in Webb’s infrared camera. That makes the pink clouds in the picture.
These ejections are the star rising for one final explosion: a supernova.
This pre-supernova stage in a star’s life is called Wolf-Rayet. Some stars experience a very brief Wolf-Rayet phase before dying, making this type of star a rare sight.
A Wolf-Rayet star is “among the brightest, most massive, and most briefly discernible stars known,” according to NASA.
This star, called WR 124, is 15,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius. It is 30 times the mass of the Sun. It shed 10 suns worth of material to create the nebula glowing in the image.
Webb helps investigate a dusty cosmic mystery
This cosmic dust is of great interest to astronomers. It’s the stuff of everything in the universe: new stars, new planets, and everything on it.
New, dusty material comes from old, dying stars that explode and hurl everything into space in a grand cosmic feat of recycling.
According to NASA, there is more dust in the universe than astronomers’ theories can explain. Webb could help solve the mystery by finding more clues about dust formation — including supernovas and Wolf-Rayet stars like this one.
The telescope’s powerful infrared capabilities make it a much better dust survey tool than any previous observatory.
“Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers simply did not have enough detailed information to investigate questions about dust production in environments like WR 124 and whether the dust grains were large and abundant enough to survive the supernova and make a significant contribution to the overall dust budget,” wrote NASA in their release of the photo, “Now these questions can be explored with real data.”
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