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NASA’s Webb Telescope Captures Rarely Seen Prelude to Supernova

NASA

The luminous, hot star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) is prominent at the center of the James Webb Space Telescope’s composite image combining near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument.
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

NASA’s Webb Telescope continues to stun the world with images of never before seen stars, planets and entire galaxies around the universe. Now it has provided images of a star before it goes supernova. The star is a Wolf-Rayet.

A supernova is the greatest explosion ever known to science. It occurs when a star dies. The star explodes, but not before a long process in which it first expands. The explosion releases a massive amount of light.

NASA said that sighting of a Wolf-Rayet star are rare. They are among the “most luminous, most massive, and most briefly detectable” stars known. And this was one of the first observations made by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in June 2022. Webb shows the star, WR 124, in unprecedented detail with its powerful infrared instruments. The star is 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagitta.

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Massive stars race through their lifecycles, and only some of them go through a brief Wolf-Rayet phase before going supernova, making Webb’s detailed observations of this rare phase valuable to astronomers. Wolf-Rayet stars are in the process of casting off their outer layers, resulting in their characteristic halos of gas and dust. The star WR 124 is 30 times the mass of the Sun and has shed 10 Suns’ worth of material – so far. As the ejected gas moves away from the star and cools, cosmic dust forms and glows in the infrared light detectable by Webb.

The origin of cosmic dust that can survive a supernova blast and contribute to the universe’s overall “dust budget” is of great interest to astronomers for multiple reasons, explained NASA. Dust is integral to the workings of the universe: It shelters forming stars, gathers together to help form planets, and serves as a platform for molecules to form and clump together – including the building blocks of life on Earth.

“Despite the many essential roles that dust plays,” NASA says, “there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers’ current dust-formation theories can explain. The universe is operating with a dust budget surplus.”

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