NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has given us some great views of the dying days of a giant star.
On Tuesday (March 14), NASA released JWST images of WR 124, a rare Wolf-Rayet star located about 15,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius.
“Massive stars race through their life cycles, and only some have a brief wolf-reight phase before becoming supernova, making Webb’s detailed observations of this rare phase valuable to astronomers,” NASA officials wrote in the journal Wolf-Right. Description of photos (Opens in a new tab)which was picked up by JWST in June 2022, after it became operational.
“Wolf-Rayet stars are in the process of shedding their outer layers, producing distinct halos of gas and dust,” agency officials added.
Related: 12 amazing discoveries made by the James Webb Space Telescope
NASA officials said WR 124 is about 30 times more massive than our sun and has spewed gas and dust equivalent to more than 10 solar masses into space so far. All this dust, as ordinary as it may seem, is very interesting to astronomers.
“Dust is an integral part of the workings of the universe: It protects the formation of stars, clumps together to help form planets, and serves as a platform for the formation and coming together of molecules — including the building blocks of life on Earth,” NASA officials wrote in the book. Image description. “Despite the many essential roles dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers’ current theories of dust composition can explain.”
They added that the JWST’s observations may shed light on this mysterious “dust budget surplus.” That’s because cosmic dust is best studied in infrared wavelengths, which is the type of light that JWST is optimized to monitor.
Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers did not have enough detailed information to explore questions about dust production in environments like WR 124, and whether dust grains are large and plentiful enough to survive a supernova and become a significant contributor to dust aggregate. Budget NASA officials wrote. “Now these questions can be investigated with real data.”
JWST was launched atop a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana on December 25, 2021. The $10 billion observatory then traveled toward the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable spot in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from our planet
All the way to L2, which it reached in late January 2022, JWST revealed its massive solar shield and multi-segment primary mirror, cascading in an intricate deployment sequence that had mission team members, scientists, and space enthusiasts around the world holding their breath.
After a long series of exits, the mission began its science campaign in June 2022, and NASA released the first JWST images to the public a month later. The telescope is now making a wide range of potentially transformative observations, from looking at some of the first stars and galaxies in the universe to investigating the composition of the near atmospheres of exoplanets.
Mike Wall is the author of “outside (Opens in a new tab)Book (Major Grand Publishing, 2018; illustration by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab) or on FSpock (Opens in a new tab).