Revealing the Mysteries of Cosmic Dust: The James Webb Telescope Captures a Rare Wolf-Rayet Star
The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a rare and explosive phenomenon 15,000 light-years away from Earth. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, it is the brief phase that comes just before a star goes supernova.
The Wolf-Rayet star WR 124 is 30 times the mass of the sun and has shed 10 suns-worth of material—so far. As the gas is expelled from the star and cools, cosmic dust particles are created and emit infrared light that can be detected by Webb.
The space observatory captured a scintillating image of the Wolf-Rayet star, revealing a large, bright star shining from the center with smaller stars scattered throughout the image. A dense mass of material encircles the central star, with more of it above and below than on the sides, in certain areas permitting background stars to be seen. Gaps of darkness punctuate the cloudscape, and small, bright regions in the upper and lower left seem to resemble schools of tadpoles swimming towards the center star.
NASA staff reported that, prior to the construction of the James Webb Telescope, astronomers who studied dust had an insufficient amount of data pertaining to its production in various environments. Now, its infrared eyes are able to observe the dust being flung into space by the star, providing the detailed information needed to explore questions of dust production and whether the dust grains were large and bountiful enough to survive the supernova.
WR 124 stars can be used as a comparison to help astronomers gain insight into a key stage in the early life of the universe. Dying stars similar to those present in the early universe produced heavy elements in their cores, which were then distributed throughout the universe. These elements are now found in abundance in the modern universe, including on Earth.
Thanks to Webb's spectacular image of WR 124, a fleeting period of transformation has been forever immortalized, and this promises further revelations about the enigmatic nature of cosmic dust.
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