This amazingly detailed image captures the rare sight of a massive star’s dying days before exploding into a supernova and collapsing into a black hole.
The Wolf-Rayet phase – lasting at most a few million years – is a key phase in the evolution of massive stellar giants.
Called WR 124, this one is located 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius and was captured in unprecedented detail by NASA’s new $10 billion superspace telescope, James Webb.
It is 30 times larger than our Sun and is currently shedding its outer layers in preparation for its imminent death.
As it does so, the star ejects a huge cloud of dust and gas that then cools to produce a beautiful halo that glows in infrared in this spectacular new image.
This amazingly detailed image captures the rare sight of a massive star’s dying days before exploding into a supernova and collapsing into a black hole
WR 124 has already thrown 10 suns worth of material into space and oIf the star runs out of heavy elements, it can merge and explode.
WHAT ARE WOLF-RAYET STARS?
The Wolf-Rayet phase, lasting at most a few million years, is a key phase in the evolution of massive stellar giants.
Only one star in a hundred million is classified as a Wolf-Rayet – wildly bright, hot stars doomed to imminent collapse in a supernova explosion that leaves a black hole behind.
They watch as the massive star is blown off its outer layers in preparation for its imminent death.
As it does this, the star emits a huge cloud of dust and gas which then cools to produce a beautiful halo that glows in infrared.
Once the star runs out of heavy elements, it can merge and explode.
Massive stars race through their life cycles, only a few of which go through a brief Wolf-Rayet phase before going supernova.
In fact, only one in a hundred million is classified as a Wolf-Rayet – ferociously bright, hot stars doomed to imminent collapse in a supernova explosion that leaves behind a black hole.
The fact that the Wolf-Rayet stage is so rare and short makes this detection by Webb an important one.
It was one of the telescope’s first observations when it began collecting data in June 2022.
The image is important because it should help astronomers figure out exactly how dust behaves and whether the dust particles are large and numerous enough to survive the upcoming supernova.
Dust is an essential part of the universe and how it works.
It comes together to help planets form, protects stars as they form and allows molecules to form and clump together, like those that led to the building blocks of life on Earth.
Similar dying stars first littered the young universe with heavy elements forged in their cores – elements that are now common, including on our planet.
However, the universe operates on a “dust budget surplus,” and this has puzzled astronomers.
They say there is still more dust in the vast emptiness of space than current dust formation theories can account for.
The Wolf-Rayet phase – lasting at most a few million years – is a key phase in the evolution of massive stellar giants. Called WR 124, this one is located 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius and was captured in unprecedented detail by NASA’s new $10bn (£7.4bn) superspace telescope, James Webb
The new view of Pandora’s Cluster merges four Webb snapshots into one panoramic image, showing about 50,000 sources of near-infrared light. The new telescope can be seen in the photo
INSTRUMENTS ON THE JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE
NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared camera from the edge of the visible through the near infrared
NIRSpec (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range.
MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) measures the medium to long infrared wavelength range from 5 to 27 microns.
FGS/NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilize the observatory’s line of sight during scientific observations.
NASA experts therefore hope that determining how dust behaves around Wolf-Rayet stars like WR 124 can help us figure out where all that extra dust is coming from.
Webb is key to the whole thing because his infrared vision can see past cosmic dust and glimpse the inner workings of stars like WR 124, which throw dust into space.
It’s a special trick that other space telescopes like the iconic Hubble can’t do.
NASA’s new telescope is able to use its Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) to help observe stars like WR 124, as it contrasts the brightness of their stellar cores with the intricate detail of the fainter gas that surrounds them.
The telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) can then measure the gas and dust nebula from the ejecta surrounding the star.
Before Webb came along, astronomers lacked the most important detailed information they needed to investigate questions about dust production in environments like WR 124.
Now they hope to see if dust particles are large enough to survive a supernova and, in turn, become a major contributor to the overall dust budget.
“Webb’s detailed image of WR 124 preserves forever a short, turbulent time of transformation and promises future discoveries that will reveal the long-shrouded mysteries of cosmic dust,” NASA said.
The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies
The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7bn (£5bn), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.
The Hubble telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It orbits Earth at a speed of about 17,000 mph (27,300 km/h) in low Earth orbit at about 340 miles altitude.