James Webb telescope spots a star about to go supernova

15 Mar 2023

Image of the massive star WR 124, taken with instruments from the James Webb Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

The star has been captured in the Wolf-Rayet phase, a brief period where massive stars shed their outer layers before going supernova.

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured one of its most unique images yet: A star on the cusp of an explosive death.

The star – WR 124 – is on the verge of going supernova, which is when a star explodes at the end of its life cycle, releasing a massive cloud of hot gas and space dust into the cosmos.

WR 124 is a massive star – 30 times the mass of our own sun – and has been captured in the Wolf-Rayet phase of its life. This is a brief period that massive stars go through before going supernova, as they shed their outer layers.

In a rare and valuable sight for astronomers, Webb’s powerful instruments have been able to capture this moment in incredible detail.

The space observatory’s Near-Infrared Camera is able to show the star’s bright core while revealing the detail of the gas surrounding it.

The telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is able to show the different levels of heat from these gases, revealing more about the structure of the developing nebula.

Being able to observe the cosmic dust created by these type of supernovas is important to astronomers, as it can help shed light on the early points of the universe.

NASA said dust is “integral” to the workings of the universe, as it shelters forming stars, clumps together to create planets and eventually helps create the building blocks for life on Earth.

But currently, there is more dust in the universe than astronomers can explain, according to NASA.

It is hoped that observations made from these type of images can let astronomers see if dust grains are large enough to survive supernova events, which would help explain the current “dust budget surplus”.

“Webb’s detailed image of WR 124 preserves forever a brief, turbulent time of transformation, and promises future discoveries that will reveal the long-shrouded mysteries of cosmic dust,” NASA said.

Last month, it was revealed that observations from the powerful space telescope could shake up our understanding of the early universe, as researchers detected what appear to be large, ancient galaxies within its images.

At the start of the year, the James Webb discovered its first exoplanet 41 light-years away in the Octans constellation. Almost the same size as Earth, scientists are trying to determine if the planet has an atmosphere, with more exoplanet discoveries expected in the future.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic