James Webb Space Telescope’s Breathtaking Glimpse of a Supernova’s Expanding Remnants

NASA announced on Thursday that the James Webb Space Telescope has started looking at the famous Supernova 1987A. They’re using a special camera called NIRCam to learn how exploded stars change over time.

The picture they got looks like a space jellyfish with a central part that’s shaped like a keyhole. This middle part is full of lumpy gas and dust that came out when the star exploded. The dust is so thick that even the Webb telescope’s special camera can’t see through it, making a dark spot in the picture.

Around this keyhole-like center, there’s a bright ring that goes around and connects the two faint arms of the outer rings, which look like an hourglass. This bright ring is made from stuff that was thrown out by the star thousands of years before it exploded. When the shockwave from the supernova hit this ring, it made bright spots. There are some similar bright spots outside the ring too.

The Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, along with the Chandra X-ray observatory, have already looked at these structures, but the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) shows them more clearly. Webb found something new – small crescent shapes near the explosion.

These crescents might be part of the outer gas layers from the explosion. They appear brighter, which could be because of how we’re looking at them in three dimensions. It might make them seem like there’s more material in these two crescents than there is.

Even though we discovered this supernova decades ago, it still keeps secrets. One of them is that we can’t seem to find a neutron star that should have formed after the explosion.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has recently turned its gaze toward the remnants of a star that exploded 36 years ago. Using its Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the JWST captured these expanding stellar remains with remarkable clarity, unveiling entirely new insights into this growing supernova remnant.

This particular supernova, known as Supernova 1987A, holds a special place in astronomical history. It’s the closest supernova observed since the dazzling display of Kepler’s Supernova illuminated the Milky Way back in 1604. Supernova 1987A was initially identified in 1987 and is situated approximately 168,000 light-years away from our home planet within the Large Magellanic Cloud.

What makes this supernova especially intriguing is that it resulted from the cataclysmic end of a massive blue supergiant star referred to as Sanduleak–69 202. Before its explosive demise, this colossal star was estimated to possess a mass around 20 times greater than that of our sun.

A bright supernova happened, and people could see it without any special tools in the southern part of the Earth. Astronomers have been watching the stuff it threw out into space ever since. Now, the JWST looked at what’s left of this exploded star, thanks to a study led by Mikako Matsuura from Cardiff University in the UK. And this is the amazing picture of what’s left after the star died.

Video Credit : VideoFromSpace

Matsuura’s project used the JWST to check how the shockwave from the supernova was moving as it hit things around it. When big stars like blue supergiants get old, they start tossing out a lot of stuff into space. The Hubble Space Telescope watched as the shockwave from Supernova 1987A crashed into a ring of stuff that the dying star had thrown out over about 20,000 years. At first, it was racing at about 7,000 kilometers per second (4,350 miles per second), but when it hit the ring, it slowed down to about 2,300 kilometers per second (1,430 miles per second).

Within the main ring, clusters of material got brighter, looking like a string of pearls. There are two other rings, which seem to be in a different position and are thinner and fainter. Scientists think these rings could be where the star’s wind from before the explosion met the stuff the star threw out earlier.

Another idea is that these rings are getting lit up by jets from a neutron star that we can’t see but experts believe formed when the star exploded. The JWST has given us new information. It showed that the shockwave had gone past the main ring and sped up to about 3,600 kilometers per second (2,236 miles per second). This created new hot spots that might become as bright as the ones we already knew about.

There’s also a faint glow as the blast wave from the supernova stirs up the gas around the explosion site. And the JWST found something new inside the main ring. In there, where gas and dust make a keyhole shape, there are two strange shapes, like crescents. The scientists think these might be the outer layers of gas that the supernova pushed out, but we’re seeing them from an angle.

The JWST will keep watching the glowing remains of the supernova to see how they change. They’re also looking for the neutron star in the middle of the explosion, but they haven’t found it yet.

There are some signs that the neutron star might be there, even if we can’t see it directly. Other observatories like NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR X-ray telescopes have picked up X-ray signals that could come from the neutron star. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) also found clues that the neutron star might be hiding in one of the clumps of dust at the center of the remains.