NASA Webb Telescope Image Shows Rare Star About to Go Supernova

A stunning photo from the James Webb Space Telescope captures a rare sight: a massive star on the brink of death, revving up to explode in a supernova.

NASA shared the image on Tuesday. It reveals that the star has been ejecting its outer material, slowly building a knotted, layered halo of gas and dust around itself.

As the ejected gas moves away from the star, it cools and forms a cloud, or “nebula,” that glows in Webb’s infrared camera. That’s what makes the pink clouds in the image.

Those ejections are the star revving up for a final explosion: a supernova.

supernova colorful bubble of webby gas dust in space

A supernova remnant. The pictured supernova is not the star imaged by Webb.


This pre-supernova stage of a star’s life is called Wolf-Rayet. Some stars race through a very brief Wolf-Rayet phase before their deaths, making this type of star a rare sight.

A Wolf-Rayet star is “among the most luminous, most massive, and most briefly-detectable stars known,” according to NASA.

This star, called WR 124, is 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. It’s 30 times the mass of the sun. It has shed 10 suns’ worth of material to create the nebula glowing in the picture.

Webb helps investigate a dusty cosmic mystery

That cosmic dust is of great interest to astronomers. It’s the stuff that makes up everything in the universe: new stars, new planets, and everything on them.

New, dusty material comes from old, dying stars that explode and expel it all into space, in a great cosmic feat of recycling.

james webb space telescope artist illustration gold panels octagon on purple foil platform

An artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

According to NASA, there’s more dust in the universe than astronomers’ theories can explain. Webb could help solve the mystery by finding more clues about the origins of dust — including supernovas and Wolf-Rayet stars like this one.

The telescope’s powerful infrared capabilities make it a much better dust-studying tool than any prior observatory.

“Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers simply did not have enough detailed information to explore questions of dust production in environments like WR 124, and whether the dust grains were large and bountiful enough to survive the supernova and become a significant contribution to the overall dust budget,” NASA wrote in its release of the photo. “Now those questions can be investigated with real data.”

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