2,500 years ago, one of the most beautiful features of space was born: the South Ring Nebula. The nebula was vividly photographed by the Webb Space Telescope earlier this year, and astronomers now think they know exactly how a star’s violent explosion took place, leaving the elegant nebula in its wake .
The star that carried the nebula was about three times the size of the Sun and 500 million years old. It’s pretty young, in stellar terms; our Sun is about 4.6 billion years old and should live another 5 billion.
Around 2,500 years ago, Confucius and the 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, blasting gas outward from a newly formed white dwarf.
The star in the Southern Ring Nebula is not yet dead, but its expulsion of gas is a major turning point in the star’s lifespan. White dwarfs are the stellar endgame; they form when stars have exhausted their nuclear energy and begin their slow cooling.
Using images from the Webb Space Telescope and intelligent calculations and mathematical modeling by the research teammoments before the Southern Ring Nebula’s stellar light show can now be examined in detail.
Different Webb filters highlight various aspect of a source of light, therefore parts of the nebula may seem pearlescent or a translucent red while others look blue or orange, depending on the image. The Webb image processors choose to highlight different aspects of objects in order to to highlight various elements—hot gas, for exampleor flagship factories within larger systems.
A team of 70 astronomers worked together to determine that up to five stars (only two of which are now visible) may have been involved in the stellar disappearance. Their investigation into the death of the star is published today in Nature Astronomy.
“We were surprised to find evidence of two or three companion stars that likely hastened its death, as well as another ‘innocent bystander’ star that got caught up in the interaction,” said Orsola De Marco, an astronomer at Macquarie University and responsible for the study. senior author, at a university Release.
The team’s play-by-play on the origins of the nebula was possible thanks to very precise measurements of the brightest star (the star among stars, if you will) in the Webb imagician. Webb’s data has allowed researchers to accurately measure his mass and the progress of his own life.which in turn allowed them to derive mass from the faint central star before it loses its material and creates the colorful nebula.
Webb imaged the South Ring with two instruments, NIRcam and MIRI. The Webb images were supplemented with data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the San Pedro de Mártir Telescope, and NASA’s Gaia and Hubble Space Telescopes.
Only two of the stars believed to be involved in this cosmic rage are visible in Webbit is representative color snapshot of the nebula, taken with NIRcam. The bright star in the center of the nebula is associated with the one that ejected so much material that it became a white dwarf. This shrunken (and exhausted) star lies faintly along the 8-hour diffraction peak from the bright center star in the image above.
Astronomers believe that at least one star has interacted with the fainter star (star 1 in the illustrated timeline below) as the latter swelled, preparing to expel its gas and 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 covered the faint star in dust before merging with the dwarf. Star 2 in the illustration is now the bright spot at the center of the nebula – a relatively solid figure, given its lack of explosive activity or gaseous releases.
Another star (or “party girl”, in the Space Telescope Science Institute Analogy of an astrophysical party gone wrong) kicked up the gas and dust released by its predecessor, causing undulating ripples in the material. Then another star (star 5 in the panels above) circled the light show and produced the ring system encircling the nebula.
According to the researchers’ calculations, you can consider the white dwarf near the nebula’s core to be the host of the party that raged too much and passed out long before the party was over. But the star kept everyone having a good time while she was up for it, and that’s what kept the party going.
“We believe that all this gas and dust that we see thrown around must have come from this one star, but it was thrown in very specific directions by companion stars,” said Joel Kastner, an astrophysicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a StScI Release.
The researchers believe that the same methods that uncovered the specifics of the South Ring Nebula’s birth could help unpack the births of other nebulae, as well as the astrophysical forces at work in star interactions.
The images that unveiled this interstellar scene were released in June; only now have the researchers had time to sift through the data and present their interpretation.
So consider the pictures you have 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 ‘wrong’?
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