Webb Space Telescope discovers strange cosmic “fingerprint”

The two stars in Wolf-Rayet produce 140 ring-like shells of dust every eight years, as seen in this image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Each ring was created when the stars came close together and their stellar winds collided, compressing the gas and forming dust. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JPL-Caltech

A new web image shows at least 17 dust rings created by a rare type of star and its companion locked in a celestial dance.

A fascinating cosmic scene has been revealed in a new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. At least 17 concentric dust rings are seen mysteriously emerging from a pair of stars. The duo is known as Wolf-Rayet 140, and is located 5,000 light-years from Earth.

Wolf-Rayet stars (often referred to as WR or WR) are unusual stars that are very massive (more than 40 times the mass of our Sun), extremely hot (from 20,000 K to about 210,000 K), and exceptionally bright. Wolf-Rayet stars were discovered in 1867 by C.J. Wolf and G. Rayet. These stars constantly eject the outer atmosphere in bubble-like shells of particles and gases, creating powerful stellar winds. About 500 of these stars have been cataloged so far in

Milky Way
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our solar system, and is named because of its appearance from Earth. It is a barred spiral galaxy that contains an estimated 100-400 billion stars and has a diameter of between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years.

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Each ring was formed when the stellar winds (streams of gas they blow into space) from the two stars collided as they approached one another, compressing the gas and generating dust. About every eight years, the stars’ orbits bring them together; the dust loops mark the passage of time, much like the growth rings on a tree trunk.

“We’re looking at over a century of dust production from this system,” said Ryan Lau. “The image also illustrates just how sensitive this telescope is. Before, we were only able to see two dust rings, using ground-based telescopes. Now we see at least 17 of them.” Lau is an astronomer at NSF’s NOIRLab and lead author of a new study about the system, published on October 12 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

In addition to Webb’s overall sensitivity, its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is uniquely qualified to study the dust rings – or what Lau and his colleagues call shells, because they are thicker and wider than they appear in the image. Webb’s science instruments detect infrared light, a range of wavelengths invisible to the human eye. MIRI detects the longest infrared wavelengths, which means it can often see cooler objects – including the dust rings – than Webb’s other instruments can. MIRI’s spectrometer also revealed the composition of the dust, formed mostly from material ejected by a type of star known as a Wolf-Rayet star.

The two stars in Wolf-Rayet produce 140 rings, or shells of dust, every time their orbits bring them together. Visualizing their orbits, shown in this video, helps explain how their interaction produces the fingerprint-like pattern observed by

Founded in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States federal government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aviation and space research. see her “To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of mankind.” core values “Safety, Integrity, Teamwork, Excellence and Inclusion.”

“data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>NASA’s Webb space telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Comparing Sizes: The Sun and WR 140

This graphic shows the relative size of the Sun, upper left, compared to the two stars in the system known as Wolf-Rayet 140. The O-type star is roughly 30 times the mass of the Sun, while its companion is about 10 times the mass of the Sun.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lau and his co-authors think WR 140’s winds also swept the surrounding area clear of residual material they might otherwise collide with, which may be why the rings remain so pristine rather than smeared or dispersed. There are likely even more rings that have become so faint and dispersed, not even Webb can see them in the data.

Wolf-Rayet stars may seem exotic compared to our Sun, but they may have played a role in star and planet formation. When a Wolf-Rayet star clears an area, the swept-up material can pile up at the outskirts and become dense enough for new stars to form. There is some evidence the Sun formed in such a scenario.

Using data from MIRI’s Medium Resolution Spectroscopy mode, the new study provides the best evidence yet that Wolf-Rayet stars produce carbon-rich dust molecules. What’s more, the preservation of the dust shells indicates that this dust can survive in the hostile environment between stars, going on to supply material for future stars and planets.

The catch is that while astronomers estimate that there should be at least a few thousand Wolf-Rayet stars in our galaxy, only about 600 have been found to date.

“Even though Wolf-Rayet stars are rare in our galaxy because they are short-lived as far as stars go, it’s possible they’ve been producing lots of dust throughout the history of the galaxy before they explode and/or form black holes,” said Patrick Morris, an astrophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the new study. “I think with NASA’s new space telescope we’re going to learn a lot more about how these stars shape the material between stars and trigger new star formation in galaxies.”

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