The Webb Space Telescope has captured an uncommon and fleeting phase of a star on the cusp of death.
The rare and stunning shot of the fading star was taken by Webb soon after its launch in late 2021. NASA released the image last week during the keynote “Unfold The Universe: NASA’s Webb Space Telescope,” held at South by Southwest in Austin.
Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990, which orbits Earth from roughly 332 miles away, Webb orbits the Sun at approximately 1 million miles away, according to NASA. This allows for much more revealing observations of the cosmos.
The captured image reveals the star, called WR 124, looking very much like a cosmic cherry blossom. The star’s outer layer of dust and gas gives off a purple- and pink-hued shimmer as it ejects material from its white-hot burning center.
“We’ve never seen it like that before,” Macarena Garcia Marin, an astrophysicist from the European Space Agency and a keynote co-speaker, said, per WFAA. “It’s really exciting.”
The lifecycle of a star is believed to end with a violent explosion known as a supernova.
As it prepares for this transition during what is called the Wolf-Rayet phase, the star emits tremendous amounts of material — the equivalent of 10 Suns’ worth.
Capturing this rapid and turbulent prelude to the star’s death marks a significant step toward better understanding the composition of the star’s cast-off material and how it is distributed in space.
In fact, scientists have long been baffled by space dust: how it forms, the role it plays in the universe, and why there is so much of it.
Space dust differs greatly from the dust that accumulates on your TV. It is more like smoke and can be found in large quantities across the universe.
The death of WR 124 is occurring 15,000 light-years away. To put that distance in perspective, a light-year equals roughly 5.8 trillion miles. The star is located in the constellation Sagittarius — the archer — and is 30 times as massive as the Sun.
By capturing this unprecedented image of WR 124, Webb is proving its worth. The development and launch of the state-of-the-art seven-ton telescope was a multinational project dating to the 1990s.
As NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, told the Associate Press as Webb lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Christmas Day in 2021, “We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”