NASA’s Webb Space Telescope has captured the rare and brief phase of a star in the constellation Sagittarius right before dying and going supernova.
The image, released Tuesday at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, shows the Wolf-Rayet star in unprecedented detail, casting a shimmering purple halo as it ejects gas. As the gas moves away from the star, it cools, and cosmic dust forms and glows in the infrared light detectable by Webb, according to NASA.
“Massive stars race through their lifecycles, and only some of them go through a brief Wolf-Rayet phase before going supernova, making Webb’s detailed observations of this rare phase valuable to astronomers,” the space agency said in a statement.
The image is being celebrated for its ability to shed more light on the origins of constellations, planets and the universe as a whole.
“What pictures like this show are a star’s final moments, which are really important in terms of stellar evolution and how the elements that make life possible, for example, are actually formed,” according to CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood. “[Webb’s] ability to see things like this Wolf-Rayet star in such unprecedented detail really promise great things for the future. I think it’s going to continue to blow our minds.”
In addition, NASA said it hopes to learn more about the origin of cosmic dust that can survive a supernova blast.
“Despite the many essential roles that dust plays, there is still more dust in the universe than astronomers’ current dust-formation theories can explain,” the space agency said. “The universe is operating with a dust budget surplus.”
The dying star was one of the first observations made by the Webb telescope in June 2022, according to NASA.
The star, 15,000 light-years away, is 30 times as massive as our sun and already has shed enough material to account for 10 suns, according to the space agency.