James Webb Space Telescope captures dust from two enormous stars colliding

To illustrate how much the Universe has expanded over the past 150 years, 17 dust rings can be seen clearly in the image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

James Webb Space Telescope captures dust from two enormous stars colliding
The James Webb Space Telescope captures an image of the dust generated by the collision of winds between two massive stars. Image: UNAM

For the first time, an unpublished image of the production of dust by the colliding winds of two massive stars, taken with the James Webb Space Telescope, can be observed with great clarity.

Joel Sánchez Bermúdez, a researcher at UNAM's Institute of Astronomy (IA), is the only Mexican participant in this international collaboration, which brings together 32 researchers from 34 institutions in eight countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

The scientific group is headed by Ryan M. Lau, from the NSF NOIR Lab, located in Tucson, Arizona, and belonging to the National Science Foundation of the United States.

The stars in the Universe have different masses. Some, like the Sun, are relatively small. Those with at least eight times the mass of the Sun are considered massive or high-mass stars, said Sánchez Bermúdez.

"These stars are very important for the chemical evolution of the Universe, because they generate most of the heavy chemical elements that exist, either during their lifetime or through their death in the form of supernova explosions," he said.

The massive ones have a particular characteristic: 90 percent are in multiple or binary systems. This means that at least two stars are orbiting around each other, unlike low-mass stars, such as the Sun, where the proportion of multiple systems is lower.

"Each of the orbiting massive stars has a certain stellar wind, which is gas launched from the outer photosphere of the star. What can happen is that, when a pair of stars are close together along their orbits, the wind from the stars collides with each other. It is precisely in this clash of winds that very interesting phenomena can occur, such as the formation of dust," explained Sánchez Bermúdez.

The article - in which Sánchez Bermúdez is a collaborator - is part of an Early Science program with the James Webb Space Telescope and is published in the journal Nature Astronomy. The observations were obtained in the mid-infrared with the telescope's MIRI camera, which observes radiation between four and 12 microns.

"We're looking at more than a century of dust production in this system," Ryan Lau, NSF NOIR Lab astronomer and lead author of this study, told NASA.

"The study also shows that the dust formed by this type of binary system is composed mainly of nanometer-sized grains of carbon dust," said Sánchez Bermúdez.

The image reaffirms the great observational power of the James Webb Space Telescope. "It also illustrates how sensitive the JWST is. Before these observations, we were only able to see two dust rings using ground-based telescopes. Now we see 17," Ryan Lau added to NASA.

Sánchez Bermúdez commented that the project is the first in a series of studies of several of these interacting binary systems of massive stars. For this, we have used several cameras on the Telescope, in particular MIRI and NIRISS.

The two stars in WR140 produce ring-like layers of dust every 8 years, as seen in this image from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Each ring was created when the stars moved closer together and their stellar winds collided, compressing gas and forming dust. Credit: UNAM

James Webb Space Telescope to study the origin of the universe

After its launch, the James Webb Space Telescope has traveled its way to its final destination, located one million 500 thousand kilometers away from Earth, where its orbit, Lagrange 2, will be located. There it will begin the study of the images found millions of light-years away, which will allow us to better study the birth of the Universe.

Humanity has always dreamed of better understanding this process and studying the past. For this reason, the James Webb telescope, a space observatory that will analyze the oldest galaxies, was launched into space on December 25, 2021. It all began 13.8 billion years ago, added the scientist when energy emerged from the fluctuations of the vacuum and in a micro fraction of a second, it expanded a billion times through a process called cosmic inflation. When it finally stopped, the Universe we know today emerged and continued to expand and cool.

Built and operated by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, he explained that this telescope will study the Universe through infrared light. When it reaches its final destination it will align its mirrors, cool to a temperature close to absolute zero, and thus scrutinize the traces of the first stars and galaxies. Being in space at the mercy of the light of the Sun and the Moon, it is more difficult to observe in the distance, so James Webb has an umbrella that will allow it to cover itself from this light and also to cool down at all times. It will orbit the Earth at the same speed, to accompany it around the Sun.

The James Webb space telescope has a mirror composed of 18 hexagonal segments that, combined, create a mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters, much larger than the Hubble telescope, which has a diameter of 2.4 meters.

The two stars in WR140 create ring-like layers of dust.
This image, captured by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, shows how every 8 years, the two stars in WR140 create ring-like layers of dust. Credit: UNAM

How will JWST study the past?

Infrared light from the different stars in the Universe takes a very long time to reach us. For example, sunlight, which is at a distance of 150,000,000 km from the Earth, takes approximately 8 minutes to reach us; Alpha Centauri, which is the closest star to us, is at a distance of four light-years, and its radiation is much more delayed. For this reason, James Webb will study the past. The Universe is dilating and this causes the blue and violet light in the cosmos to also dilate and consequently, the light that used to be red or violet becomes infrared.

In the future

While the James Webb telescope was being built, several extrasolar planets were discovered. It has been suggested that these planets absorb infrared light through their atmospheres and probably have molecules that are very important for life, such as water, methane, and CO2. The James Webb telescope will also be used to observe these extraterrestrial planets and find out if they have any life. Although this observatory is months away, astronomers are happy that all its data will be available to the community. The James Webb telescope will help us understand the history of the Universe, which emerged 13.8 billion years ago, and why not, we will also be able to discover new things.

Source: UNAM