Image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals rare star preparing to explode and die in supernova

A pre-supernova star, called a Wolf-Rayet star, in the near to mid-infrared via the James Webb Space Telescope.Production team NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO

A stunning photo from the James Webb Space Telescope captures a rare sight: a massive star on the verge of death, revving up to explode in a supernova.

NASA shared the image on Tuesday. It reveals that the star has ejected its outer material, slowly building a knotted, layered halo of gas and dust around itself.

As the ejected gas moves away from the star, it cools and forms a cloud, or “nebula,” that shines brightly in Webb’s infrared camera. This is what makes the clouds pink in the image.

Those ejections are the star igniting for a final explosion: a supernova.

supernova colorful webby gas dust bubble in space

A supernova remnant. The supernova pictured is not the star Webb imagined.NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO

This pre-supernova stage of a star’s life is called Wolf-Rayet. Some stars go through a very short Wolf-Rayet phase before their deaths, making this type of star a rare sight.

A Wolf-Rayet star is “among the brightest, most massive, and most detectable stars known,” according to NASA.

This star, called WR 124, is located 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. It is 30 times the mass of the sun. He poured material equal to 10 suns to create the nebula that shines in the image.

Webb helps investigate a dusty cosmic mystery

That cosmic dust is of great interest to astronomers. It is the stuff that makes up everything in the universe: new stars, new planets, and everything that exists on them.

The new, dusty material comes from old, dying stars that explode and eject it all into space, in a great cosmic recycling enterprise.

james webb space telescope artist illustration gold panels octagon on purple foil platform

An artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutiérrez

According to NASA, there is more dust in the universe than astronomers’ theories can explain. Webb could help solve the mystery by finding more clues about the dust’s origins, including supernovae and Wolf-Rayet stars like this one.

The telescope’s powerful infrared capabilities make it a far better dust-study tool than any previous observatory.

“Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers simply didn’t have enough detailed information to explore questions about dust production in environments like WR 124, and whether dust grains were large and abundant enough to survive the supernova and become a significant contributor to overall budget dust,” NASA wrote in the release of the photo. “Now these questions can be tested with real data.”

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