NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope takes a picture of dust fingerprints created by two stars | Science and technology news
A new image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) shows at least 17 rings of dust resembling a fingerprint taken by a rare type of star and its companion.
Located more than 5,000 light-years from Earth, the cosmic duo is collectively known as Wolf-Rayet 140 (WR 140).
Each ring was formed as the two stars approached each other and the streams of gas they blow into space collided, compressing the gas and forming dust.
The stars’ orbit brings them together about every eight years, with dust loops marking the passage of time.
Ryan Lau, astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, said: “We’re looking at over a century of dust production from this system.
“The image also shows how sensitive JWST is. Previously we could only see two rings of dust with ground-based telescopes. Now we see at least 17 of them.”
Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is uniquely suited to studying the dust rings that researchers call shells because it sees a range of wavelengths in infrared light that are invisible to the human eye.
The UK Astronomy Technology Center (UK ATC) helped design and build MIRI’s spectrometer, which was used to reveal the composition of the dust, which consists mainly of material emanating from a special type of star called the Wolf-Rayet star is expelled.
Such a star is born with at least 25 times the mass of Earth’s Sun and is nearing the end of its life.
A Wolf-Rayet star burns hotter than when it was young, creating strong winds that eject massive amounts of gas into space.
The Wolf-Rayet star in this pair may have lost more than half of its original mass in the process, experts suggest.
They say while some other Wolf-Rayet systems dust, none are known to make rings like Wolf-Rayet 140.
They said the unique ring pattern forms because the star’s orbit in WR 140 is elongated rather than circular.
Only when the stars approach the sun at roughly the same distance from Earth and their winds collide does the gas become pressurized enough to form dust.
Astronomers believe WR 140’s winds have also cleared the area of residual material, which could explain why the rings are so pristine.
dr Olivia Jones, Webb Fellow at the UK ATC in Edinburgh and co-author of the study, said: “Not only is this a spectacular image, but this rare phenomenon is revealing new evidence about cosmic dust and how it can survive in the harsh space environments.
“These kinds of discoveries are only now opening up to us through the power of Webb and MIRI.”
The results are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Last month the telescope captured his first image of a planet outside the solar systemand has before revealed stunning details the Cartwheel Galaxy and watched a dying star and a “cosmic dance”.