NASA's James Webb Space Telescope spots a rare star preparing to explode and die in a supernova

bright star surrounded by layers of pink yellow red clouds billowing out in starry black space
A pre-supernova star, called a Wolf-Rayet star, in near-infrared and mid-infrared via the James Webb Space Telescope.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team
  • NASA's James Webb Space Telescope imaged a rare pre-supernova star in stunning detail.

  • The photo shows a massive star expelling its outer layers in the phase before a supernova explosion.

  • The dying star creates dust that could form new stars and planets — a cosmic mystery for Webb to study.

A colorful new image from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope reveals a cosmic rarity: a massive star on the brink of death, revving up to explode in a supernova.

NASA shared a stunning image of the aging star on Tuesday. It reveals that the star has been ejecting its outer material, slowly building a knotted, layered halo of gas and dust around itself.

The European Space Agency shared a video zooming in to explore the details of this dying star.

As the ejected gas moves away from the star, it cools and forms a cloud, or "nebula," that glows in Webb's infrared camera. That's what makes the pink clouds in the image.

Those ejections are the star revving up for a final explosion: a supernova.

supernova colorful bubble of webby gas dust in space
A supernova remnant. The pictured supernova is not the star imaged by Webb.NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO

This pre-supernova stage of a star's life is called Wolf-Rayet. Some stars race through a very brief Wolf-Rayet phase before their deaths, making this type of star a rare sight.

A Wolf-Rayet star is "among the most luminous, most massive, and most briefly-detectable stars known," according to NASA.

This star, called WR 124, is 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. It's 30 times the mass of the sun. It has shed 10 suns' worth of material to create the nebula glowing in the picture.

Webb helps investigate a dusty cosmic mystery

That cosmic dust is of great interest to astronomers. It's the stuff that makes up everything in the universe: new stars, new planets, and everything on them.

New, dusty material comes from old, dying stars that explode and expel it all into space, in a great cosmic feat of recycling.

james webb space telescope artist illustration gold panels octagon on purple foil platform
An artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

According to NASA, there's more dust in the universe than astronomers' theories can explain. Webb could help solve the mystery by finding more clues about the origins of dust — including supernovas and Wolf-Rayet stars like this one.

The telescope's powerful infrared capabilities make it a much better dust-studying tool than any prior observatory.

"Before Webb, dust-loving astronomers simply did not have enough detailed information to explore questions of dust production in environments like WR 124, and whether the dust grains were large and bountiful enough to survive the supernova and become a significant contribution to the overall dust budget," NASA wrote in its release of the photo. "Now those questions can be investigated with real data."

This story has been updated. It was originally published on March 14, 2023.

Watch: How NASA spent $10 billion on the James Webb telescope

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