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 run through their life cycles, 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,” NASA officials wrote in a description of the pictures (opens in new tab)which JWST snapped in June 2022, just after becoming operational.
“Wolf-Rayet stars are in the process of shedding their outer layers, resulting in their characteristic halos of gas and dust,” agency officials added.
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WR 124 is about 30 times more massive than our Sun and to date has ejected more than 10 solar masses worth of gas and dust into space, NASA officials said. All that dust, even if it sounds mundane, is extremely interesting to astronomers.
“Dust is integral to the workings of the universe: it obscures forming stars, aggregates to help form planets, and serves as a platform for molecules to form and clump together — including the building blocks of life on Earth,” NASA officials wrote in the picture description. “Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers’ current theories of dust formation can explain.”
JWST’s observations could shed light on this mysterious “dust budget surplus,” they added. That’s because cosmic dust is best studied in infrared wavelengths, the type of light that JWST is optimized to observe.
“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 total dust budget,” wrote NASA- civil servants. “Now these questions can be investigated with real data.”
JWST launched atop a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana on December 25, 2021. The $10 billion observatory then traveled toward the Earth-Sun’s Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable location in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet.
En route to L2, which it reached in late January 2022, JWST unfolded its enormous sun shield and multi-segment primary mirror in a complex deployment sequence that had mission team members, scientists and space fans around the world holding their breath.
After a long series of boxes, 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 performing a wide range of potentially transformative observations, from looking at some of the universe’s first stars and galaxies to investigating the composition of nearby exoplanet atmospheres.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the hunt for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).