Webb telescope reveals luminous stellar crime scene

Two images of the Southern Ring Nebula taken with the Webb Telescope.

This bloody milky richness from Webb shows how gas is distributed in the Southern Ring Nebula.

2,500 years ago, one of the most beautiful features of space was born: the Southern Ring Nebula. The nebula was clearly imaged by the Webb Space Telescope earlier this year, and astronomers now think they know exactly how the star’s violent explosion occurred, leaving the elegant nebula in its wake.

The star carrying the nebula was about three times the size of the Sun and 500 million years old. This is very small, star-wise. Our Sun is about 4.6 billion years old and should live another 5 billion.

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About 2,500 years ago, Confucius and Buddha were still alive. The Peloponnesian Wars were about to begin. And somewhere in those intervening years, a star 2,000 light-years away expired, spewing gas outwards from a newly formed white dwarf.

The Southern Ring Nebula’s star isn’t dead — not yet — but its gas ejection is a major turning point in the star’s life. White dwarfs are the end of the stellar game. They form when stars deplete their nuclear energy and begin to slow down.

Thanks to images from the Webb Space Telescope and clever calculations and mathematical modeling by the research team, the moments before the Southern Ring Nebula’s starlight show can now be examined in detail.

Different Webb filters highlight different sides of the light source, which is why some parts of the nebula may appear pearly or translucent red while others appear blue or orange, depending on the image. Webb’s image processors choose to highlight different aspects of objects to display different elements—hot gas, for example, or stellar factories within larger systems.

A team of 70 astronomers worked together to determine that as many as five stars (only two of which are now visible) may have been involved in the demise of the stars. Their investigation into the star’s death has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Representative color image of the Southern Ring Nebula.

Representative color image of the Southern Ring Nebula.

Representative color image of the Southern Ring Nebula from the Webb Telescope.

“We were surprised to find evidence of two or three companion stars that may have hastened its death, as well as one other ‘innocent spectator’ star caught in the midst of the interaction,” said Ursula DiMarco, an astronomer at Macquarie University and the study’s authors. Lead author, in a university statement.

The team’s game about the nebula’s origins was made possible by extremely precise measurements of the brightest star (the interstellar star, if you will) in Webb’s image. Webb’s data enabled the researchers to accurately measure its mass and how long it was in its own life, which in turn allowed them to derive the mass of the faint central star before it dumped its matter and created the colorful nebula.

Webb imaged the southern loop with two instruments, NIRcam and MIRI. Webb’s images were complemented by data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the San Pedro de Martire Telescope, and NASA’s Gaia and Hubble Space Telescopes.

Only two of the stars thought to be involved in this cosmic coming together can be seen in Webb’s representative color snapshot of the nebula, taken with NIRcam. The bright star in the center of the nebula partnered with the star, which released so much material that it became a white dwarf. This sad (and exhausted) star sits dimly along the 8 o’clock diffraction height of the bright central star in the image above.

Astronomers believe that at least one star interacted with the fainter star (star 1 in the timeline shown below) as the latter swelled, preparing to expel its gas to become a white dwarf.

According to the team, this mysterious star (star 3) spewed out jets of material as it interacted with the dying star and blanketed the faint star in dust before merging with the dwarf. Star 2 in the illustration is the bright spot in the nebula’s center now – a relatively strong character, given its lack of explosive activity or outgassing.

Six panels showing the stars' relative closeness and how they interact, giving rise to the nebula.

Six panels showing the stars’ relative closeness and how they interact, giving rise to the nebula.

Game made nebula.

Another star (or ‘visitor’, in the Space Telescope Science Institute’s analogy for an astrophysical error) spewed out the gas and dust that its predecessor released, causing rippling ripples in the matter. Then another star (star 5 in the panels above) orbited the light show and produced the ring system that surrounds the nebula.

According to the researchers’ estimates, you can consider the white dwarf near the core of the nebula to be the host of the party who raged furiously and passed out before the end of the party. But the star showed everyone a great time doing it, and thanks to him, the party kept going.

“We think all this gas and dust that we see everywhere must have come from that star, but the companion stars threw it in very specific directions,” said Joel Kastner, an astrophysicist at Rochester Institute of Technology. In the StScI edition.

Researchers believe that the same methods that revealed the details of the Southern Ring Nebula’s birth could help decipher the birth of other nebulae, as well as the astrophysical forces at work in star interactions.

The images that revealed this interstellar landscape were released in June. Only now have the researchers had enough time to examine the data and offer their own interpretation of it.

So, consider the photos you’ve seen of Webb so far — they all have their own stories, which will (hopefully) be told in detail soon.

More: Are the colors in Webb telescope images ‘fake’?

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