The Webb Space Telescope reveals hidden details of the supernova

This celestial masterpiece has been compared to the bright colors of a jellyfish, the gaping mouth of an eel, and even JRR Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron.

NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra X-ray Telescopes have all observed this famous supernova — also known as SN 1987A — before, but it wasn’t until astronomers pointed the James Webb Space Telescope to it that they were able to see it in high resolution. But it’s not just a pretty picture: the leading infrared telescope, a collaboration of NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies, has revealed new mysterious details in the remains of the exploded star.

Because infrared light is invisible to the human eye, researchers translated the data into visible light wavelengths, like playing a tune in a lower octave. They found a pair of small, peculiar crescent-shaped structures surrounding what appears to be a keyhole opening in the center of a gas cloud.

But what exactly are they? Even experts wonder if Webb’s “eye” is playing tricks on them.

“Their brightness could be an indication of limb brightening, an optical phenomenon resulting from viewing the expanding material in three dimensions,” NASA said. “In other words, our vantage point gives the impression that there is more material in those two crescents than there actually is.”


The Webb telescope captures the divine colors of a star’s death

Solving this mystery could help scientists better understand how stellar corpses evolve over time.

Stars that are about to die and supernovae like SN 1987A are element factories, astrophysicists say: They produce, for example, carbon, the same chemical on which humans and much of life on Earth are based. Then they distribute metals like calcium in bones and iron in blood in interstellar space. This expansion creates new generations of stars and planets, but scientists admit they still have a lot to learn about the early stages of the process.

In the new Webb image, the keyhole in the center is full of globs of gas and dust from the explosion.

Astronomers examine a supernova remnant

Supernova SN 1987A as seen from the James Webb Space Telescope.
Photo Credits: NASA/ESA/CSA/Mikako Matsuura/Richard Arendt/Claes Fransson/Josefin Larsson (KTH)

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“The dust is so dense that even the near-infrared light discovered by Webb cannot penetrate it, forming the dark ‘hole in the keyhole,'” NASA said.

A light belt around the middle connects two faint links of hourglass-shaped outer rings. The belt is made of material that the star fired tens of thousands of years before it died. It is riddled with hotspots formed when the supernova shock wave hit the belt. Out-of-band spots now appear, surrounded by diffuse emissions. Scientists say this finding is an important gauge of supernova progression.

Hubble observes supernova SN 1987A

The Hubble Space Telescope shows Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Photo credit: NASA / ESA / R Kirshner / M Mutchler / R Avila

Astronomers discovered SN 1987A, an intriguing and relatively close cosmic object, almost 40 years ago in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Since then scientists have studied it at radio, gamma and X-ray wavelengths. They continue to watch the aftermath because much of it is still a mystery.

For example, scientists assume that a black hole or a neutron star should have remained from the explosion. But no telescope found one in the ashes.

With time and the help of other telescopic observatories, Webb may unravel another mystery.

Chrissy Callahan

Chrissy Callahan is a Worldtimetodays U.S. News Reporter based in Canada. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Chrissy Callahan joined Worldtimetodays in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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