Posted on April 4th, 2023

Out Of This World – Supernovas and the Webb Telescope

Moments before death, massive stars release simmering halos as they eject gases into the universe, producing a spectacular, glowing death knell.

In another one of its stunning photographs, the Webb telescope has captured the final life stage of a dying star, before it becomes a supernova.

What exactly is a star? A star is a luminous ball of gas that is held together by its own gravity. As giant gas clouds coalesce and collapse on themselves, it sets off a chain reaction called nuclear fusion at the core of a star.

This is star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) in its last evolutionary stages before going supernova (Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)

In the course of their existence, all stars go through a lifecycle. The lifecycle and lifespan of a star is heavily correlated to its size: the bigger a star, the more quickly it uses its fuel, and the shorter its lifespan.

The star captured by the Webb Telescope is more than 15,000 light-years away from Earth, and its massive, more than 30 times the size of our sun! Bigger stars also experience more violent endings; when they die, they explode into supernovas. A supernova occurs either when a star collapses or is totally destroyed in its final evolutionary stages, releasing huge quantities of light and energy.

There are two types of supernovas that can occur. A Type I supernova occurs in a binary star system, where two stars are linked together by gravity and orbit around each other. One of the stars steals matter and energy from the other until it reaches a maximum capacity and explodes. A Type II supernova occurs when a massive star exhausts its fuel supply and the core of the star collapses in a final explosion of energy.

Both types of supernovas explode in a brilliant burst of light. Supernova explosions can radiate more energy in an instant than the Sun will over its entire lifespan. They are what NASA calls, “the largest explosions in space.”

What makes the Webb image truly remarkable is that not only did it capture a star on the verge of entering its supernova death, but it captured what’s known as a Wolf-Rayet Star (WR Star). A WR Star is a class of extremely hot, gigantic (generally over 20 times the mass of our sun) white stars that have a peculiar spectrum thought to indicate great turbulence within the stars. WR stars also eject a steady, large volume of material as they race towards death. In the image captured by the Webb telescope, this ejected matter is seen in the shimmering purple halo around the star. All large stars turn into supernovas at some point, but only a few are big enough to go through the Wolf-Rayet stage of star death.

According to NASA, photos like these are critical in helping scientists learn about stellar evolution. NASA is also hoping to use these images to help study the origins of cosmic dust that can survive the blast of a supernova.

It’s amazing to see another marvelous image like this one from the Webb Telescope. We can’t wait to see what other extraterrestrial wonders it reveals next. Even though this recent image is of the downfall of a star, it’s hard not to be bewitched by the beauty of these otherworldly death throes. I suppose if it’s your time to go, you may as well go out with a bang!

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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