The star is about 30 times more massive than our sun and has already shed 10 suns’ worth of gas and dust.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has recently unveiled some breathtaking views of the last stages of a gigantic star’s existence. The rare Wolf-Rayet star, WR 124, which is located approximately 15,000 light-years away from Earth in the Sagittarius constellation, has been captured by JWST in images that were released on Tuesday, March 14. According to NASA officials, only a small percentage of enormous stars go through the Wolf-Rayet phase before eventually exploding, making the detailed observations made by JWST all the more valuable to astronomers.
Wolf-Rayet stars shed their outer layers, leading to the formation of gas and dust halos, which have caught the attention of scientists. The recently captured images of WR 124 reveal that it is about 30 times more massive than the sun and has already released over 10 solar masses worth of gas and dust into space. It is worth noting that despite the seeming banality of dust, astronomers are deeply interested in it. This is because dust plays a significant role in the universe, shielding forming stars, gathering to help in the formation of planets, and serving as a platform for molecules to come together, including the building blocks of life on Earth.
In the image description, NASA officials explain that there is more dust in the universe than can be accounted for by current dust-formation theories. JWST’s observations are, therefore, crucial in unlocking this mysterious ‘dust budget surplus’ since cosmic dust is best studied in infrared wavelengths, the type of light that JWST is optimized to observe. By investigating questions surrounding dust production in environments such as WR 124 and whether the dust grains are large enough to survive the supernova and make a significant contribution to the overall dust budget, JWST’s observations could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
JWST launched atop a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana on December 25, 2021, before journeying towards the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2. The mission unfolded its huge sunshield and multi-segment primary mirror along the way to L2, which it reached in late January 2022. After a long series of checkouts, the mission began its science campaign in June 2022, and NASA released the first JWST imagery to the public a month later. Currently, the telescope is conducting a wide range of potentially transformational observations, from examining the universe’s earliest stars and galaxies to studying the composition of nearby exoplanet atmospheres.