NASA’s Webb Space Telescope captures dusty memories of rare star duo

Since July, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has delivered some of the most incredible space images we’ve ever seen. In just a few months, this pioneering machine has built a breathtaking repertoire of luminous nebulous portraits, possible evidence of ancient galaxies and even refreshing perspectives of planets of our own solar system.

But on Wednesday, the JWST shook things up a bit.

As detailed by a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, it presented us with an image of 17 concentric rings of dust – although one thing didn’t change. As with the rest of the scope’s beautiful space discoveries, these halos are just as breathtaking as they are crucial to the field of astronomy.

The agency believes these hazy rings are the result of two stars, located just over 5,000 light-years from Earth, getting close enough that their stellar winds occasionally share a kiss. Essentially, every time streams of shimmering gas from stars intertwine, they form a dusty ring. It’s almost as if they mark their union in a space stone – or, as NASA puts it, leave behind a “fingerprint”.

What is particularly fascinating with these stellar memories is that they allow us to calculate the passage of time.

Basically, each of these 17 rings signifies a starry date in exactly the same way that each ring formed by a tree signifies a year of the plant’s life. In fact, the interlocking loops of stellar bodies even resemble the inside of a tree trunk, a poignant reminder that everything we see – from the strongest stars and the most distant planets to the greenest leaves and to the smallest insects – is part of the same, coherent universe.

A close up of a tree trunk, many rings are present which indicate the age of the plant.

Rings inside a tree trunk, like these, indicate the age of the tree.

Getty Images

“We’re looking at over a century of dust production from this system,” Ryan Lau, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “The image also illustrates how sensitive this telescope is.”

Before, with the ground-based telescopes we had, we could only see two rings of dust, says Lao. “Now we see at least 17.”

Overall, from what the JWST has captured, scientists believe the special reunion of stars happens about once every eight years.

The discovery is due to the Mid-Infrared instrument of the JWST, from MIRI. Unlike the oscilloscope’s near-infrared sensors — pretty much the big dog tool on this machine — MIRI focuses on light emanating from space objects found in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Typically, JWSTs Near infrared Equipment is what gives us most of our beautiful cosmic images, but when it comes to studying the dust rings of outer space, NASA puts MIRI up to snuff. This part of the JWST is simply better suited for finding cooler items, according to the agency, like wispy hoops, and even managing to reveal their composition.

Additionally, the study team notes, a star from this star system is considered a rarity.

This is called a Wolf-Rayet star. (The duo is aptly named Wolf-Rayet 140 because of this). The other star is an O-type star, a super hot object that is also relatively difficult to spot.

Wolf-Rayet stars, unlike standard stars, lose an incredible amount of mass over time, which means they also tend to spew out heavy elements rooted deep inside them. They also have a lot of mass to lose because they are at least 25 times more massive than our sun. And at the end of their lives, they tend to transform into some of the most extreme objects known to exist in our universe: black holes.

At the top left is a small circle representing our sun.  In the middle left is a Wolf-Rayet star, which appears shrouded in wind and gas.  On the right is a slightly larger O-type star with no gas or wind surrounding it.

This graph shows the relative size of the sun, top left, compared to the two stars in the system known as Wolf-Rayet 140. The O-type star is about 30 times the mass of the sun, while its companion is about 10 times the mass of the sun.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to NASA, stars generally only eject the (very light) element hydrogen. But it’s those heavy elements emitted by Wolf-Rayets that cool in the stellar wind, thus compressing when they encounter another star’s breeze and potentially fostering the right environment for new star formation. In fact, some scientists believe that the sun rose long ago from residues of Wolf-Rayet tablets.

When it comes to the WR-140, such compression seems to form the concentric circles we see left behind. Perhaps, the agency explains, it’s because of the system’s elongated orbit. Only about 600 of these so-called Wolf-Rayet stars have been found in our galaxy so far, although scientists suspect there should be at least a few thousand in total.

“Even though Wolf-Rayet stars are rare in our galaxy because they are short-lived, it is possible that they produced a lot of dust throughout the galaxy’s history before exploding and /or form black holes.” Patrick Morris, an astrophysicist at Caltech and co-author of the new study, said in a statement.

“I think with NASA’s new space telescope, we’re going to learn a lot more about how these stars shape the material between stars and trigger the formation of new stars in galaxies.”

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