Webb Space Telescope Discovers Strange ‘Cosmic Fingerprint’

In a new image from Webb, there are at least 17 rings of dust made by a rare type of star and its partner dancing across the sky.

A new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows an incredible view of space. At least 17 mysterious rings of dust can be seen emanating from a pair of stars. Together they are called Wolf-Rayet 140 and are about 5,000 light-years from Earth.

Each ring is created when the stellar winds (streams of gas that stars blow out into space) of the two stars collide as they approach each other. This pushed the gas together and made dust.

The orbits of the stars bring them together about every eight years. Dust loops show how much time has passed, just like the rings on a tree trunk. Ryan Lau said, “This system can make dust for over a hundred years.”

“The image also illustrates how sensitive this telescope is. Previously, we could only see two dust rings using ground-based telescopes. Now we see at least 17 of them. Lau is an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and lead author of a new study about the system, published Oct. 12 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

In addition to Webb’s overall sensitivity, its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is the only one that can probe the rings of dust, which Lau and his colleagues call shells because they are thicker and wider than they appear of the image.

Webb’s science instruments can pick up infrared light, which is a range of wavelengths that humans cannot see. MIRI can see at the longest infrared wavelengths, so it can often see cooler objects, such as dust rings, better than Webb’s other instruments.

MIRI’s spectrometer also showed what the dust was made of. Most of it was made of material ejected from a type of star called a Wolf-Rayet star.

Whenever their orbits bring them together, the two stars in Wolf-Rayet 140 make dust rings, or shells. This video shows a visualization of their orbits that helps explain how their interaction makes the fingerprint-like pattern that NASA’s Webb Space Telescope saw. ESA, NASA, CSA, STScI and JPL-Caltech are responsible.

NASA and ESA worked together to make MIRI and each paid half the cost (European Space Agency). NASA was led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, and ESA was assisted by a group of astronomical institutes from across Europe.

A Wolf-Rayet star is an O-type star that was born with at least 25 times the mass of our Sun and is nearing the end of its life, when it will likely collapse and form a black hole. A Wolf-Rayet star burns hotter than when it was young.

It creates strong winds that push huge amounts of gas into space. This process may have caused the Wolf-Rayet star in this pair to lose more than half its mass.

Getting dust in the wind

Turning gas into dust is a lot like making bread from flour. You need the right conditions and ingredients. Hydrogen, which is found most often in stars, cannot form dust on its own. But because Wolf-Rayet stars lose so much mass, they also throw out elements like carbon that are normally found deep inside the star.

The heavy parts of the wind cool as they move through space, and where the winds from the two stars meet, they are pressed together, like two people kneading dough. Wolf-Rayet systems in other galaxies also make dust, but none are known to make rings like Wolf-Rayet 140 does.

The Wolf-Rayet star in WR 140 has an elongated orbit rather than a circular one, making the ring pattern unique. When the winds of two stars meet, they exert enough pressure on the gas to form dust. This happens when two stars are about the same distance from each other as the Earth and the Sun. Wolf-Rayet binaries can continue to make dust because their orbits are circular.

Lau and his co-authors believe that WR 140’s winds also cleared the area around it of any residual material the rings might have encountered. This may explain why the rings are so clean and not stained or scattered. There are probably more rings that are so dark and spread out that even Webb can’t find them in the data.

Compared to our Sun, Wolf-Rayet stars may look strange, but they may have helped form other stars and planets. When a Wolf-Rayet star sweeps out an area, the stuff it sweeps up can pile up at the edges and become dense enough to make new stars. There are some signs that the Sun formed this way.

The new study uses data from MIRI’s medium-resolution spectroscopy mode to show that the carbon-rich dust molecules are created by Wolf-Rayet stars. Furthermore, the fact that the dust envelopes are still there indicates that this dust can survive in the harsh interstellar environment and can be used to create new stars and planets.

The problem is that only about 600 Wolf-Rayet stars have been discovered so far, although astronomers believe there must be at least several thousand of them in our galaxy.

“Although Wolf-Rayet stars are rare in our galaxy because they are short-lived as stars go, it is possible that they have produced a lot of dust throughout the galaxy’s history before exploding and/or forming black holes. “ said Patrick Morris, an astrophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the new study. “I think with NASA’s new space telescope we’ll learn a lot more about how these stars shape the interstellar material and cause new stars to form in galaxies.”

More about the mission

The James Webb Space Telescope is the best place on Earth to explore space. It will solve astronomical mysteries in our solar system, search for distant planets that orbit other stars, and try to understand how and why our universe is the way it is. JWST is an international project led by NASA with ESA and CSA as partners (Canadian Space Agency).

The American research team is led by George Riecke of the University of Arizona. Gillian Wright of the Center for Astronomical Technology in the UK is in charge of the European MIRI project. Alistair Glasse of UK ATC is in charge of the MIRI instruments and Michael Ressler of JPL is in charge of the US project

The European consortium is managed by László Tamas of UK ATC. The MIRI cryocooler was built with the help of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. JPL was responsible for and managed the project. JPL is operated by Caltech for NASA.

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