NASA’s Webb Telescope discovers a rare star that is about to go supernova

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

  • NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope imaged a rare pre-supernova star in stunning detail.
  • The image shows a massive star ejecting its outer layers in the phase before a supernova explosion.
  • The dying star creates dust that can form new stars and planets — a cosmic mystery for Webb to study.

A colorful new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope reveals a cosmic rarity: a massive star on the brink of death, rising to explode in a supernova.

NASA shared a stunning image of the aging star on Tuesday. It reveals that the star has ejected its outer material and slowly built up an interlocking, layered halo of gas and dust around it.

The European Space Agency shared a video zooming in to explore the details of this dying star.

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

These ejections are the star that ignites for a final explosion: a supernova.

A supernova remnant. The supernova pictured is not the star pictured by Webb.

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

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

This star, called WR 124, is 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. It is 30 times the mass of the Sun. It has shed material for 10 suns to create the nebula that glows in the image.

Webb helps investigate a dusty cosmic mystery

The cosmic dust is of great interest to astronomers. These are the things that make up everything in the universe: new stars, new planets and everything on them.

New, dusty material comes from old, dying stars that explode and expel it all into space, in a great cosmic feat of recycling.

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

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 much better dust study tool than any previous observatory.

“Prior to Webb, dust-loving astronomers simply did not have enough detailed information to explore questions about dust production in environments like WR 124 and whether the dust grains were large and abundant enough to survive the supernova and become a significant contribution to the overall dust budget,” NASA wrote in its publication of the picture. “Now these questions can be investigated with real data.”

This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 14, 2023.

See: How NASA Spent $10 Billion on the James Webb Telescope

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