NASA’s Webb Telescope Reveals Never-Before-Seen Glimpse of Supernova Prelude: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured an awe-inspiring view of a rare prelude to supernova: Wolf-Rayet star WR 124. WR 124 lies 15,000 light years away in Sagittarius constellation and this groundbreaking discovery is of great interest to astronomers as massive stars typically go through brief Wolf-Rayet phases before becoming supernovas.
Webb’s powerful infrared instruments have provided unparalleled detail of the star, which is rapidly losing 10 Suns worth of material as it sheds its outer layers. As this ejected gas moves away from the star and cools, cosmic dust forms and glows in infrared light detectable by Webb. Astronomers are eager to understand where this dust comes from that can survive a supernova blast and contribute to Earth’s overall “dust budget,” for multiple reasons.
Dust is essential to the universe’s workings, shielding forming stars, gathering together to form planets and providing a platform for molecules to form and clump together – including life on Earth. Yet despite these numerous roles played by dust in our universe, there remains more of it than astronomers’ current theories can account for.
NASA’s James Webb detailed observations of WR 124 provide us with new opportunities for studying cosmic dust, which is best observed in infrared wavelengths of light. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) balances the brightness of WR 124’s stellar core against subtler details in its surrounding gas, while Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) exposes clumpy structure within ejected material now surrounding the star.
Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers lacked enough data to fully explore questions of dust production in environments like WR 124 or whether its grains were large and plentiful enough to survive the supernova and contribute significantly to global dust budget. Now with real data, those questions can be thoroughly explored.
Stars such as WR 124 serve as an analogy for astronomers to comprehend a pivotal period in the early history of the universe. Similar dying stars provided seeds to this young universe with heavy elements forged inside their cores – elements which remain common today, including on Earth.
Webb’s detailed image of WR 124 holds the promise of future discoveries that will unravel the long-shrouded secrets of cosmic dust, immortalizing for all time a brief yet transformative period in our universe. As the world’s premier space science observatory, James Webb Space Telescope continues its incredible journey and makes yet more incredible observations in our universe.
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