NASA recently shared James Webb telescope’s capture of a super-rare supernova prelude. It’s one of the telescope’s first observations, and although it shows the “death” of a star, it helps astronomers learn about new beginnings.
This image doesn’t only show something rarely seen and beautiful to look at. As NASA explains, the cosmic dust forming in turbulent nebulas like this is composed of the heavy-element building blocks of the modern universe, including life on Earth.
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What we see in this image is the Wolf-Rayet star WR 124 in all its glory and in spectacular detail, thanks to James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared instruments. It’s one of the “most luminous, most massive, and most briefly-detectable stars known,” NASA writes in a statement. It’s located 15,000 light-years away from us in the constellation Sagitta.
“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.”
I found it particularly interesting to learn about cosmic dust that survives a supernova. Its origin is of great interest to astronomers for multiple reasons as it’s integral to the universe’s structure and workings. “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,” NASA explains. “Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, 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.”
This detailed, rare image of a supernova prelude is of immense importance for astronomers, as it will help them unveil some of the many mysteries of cosmic dust. And as a result, they will help us learn more about the incredible universe we’re a part of.