Science New Webb telescope image reveals secrets of star structure and building blocks of life


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To gaze at the stars is a quintessentially human endeavor. However, the ability to see them in three-dimensional detail is a near-divine feat that has been made possible by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Recently, the JWST has provided Earthbound scientists with a new near-infrared image of Cassiopeia A (Cas A), a stellar remnant that has left behind clouds of gas, dust, and other materials after its death. Danny Milisavljevic, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Purdue University, who studies supernova remnants and leads a research team on the JWST, expressed awe at the quality and beauty of the data provided by the telescope.

Cassiopeia A is the youngest known remnant of an exploding, massive star in our galaxy, making it a unique opportunity for scientists to learn more about the process of supernovae. The light from the explosion of Cas A first reached Earth 340 years ago, and studying its debris field can provide insights into the nature of the star before it exploded and how the explosion occurred.

Supernovae are crucial for life as they create a wide range of elements, and subsequent supernovae disperse these elements across interstellar space, seeding new generations of stars and planets. Understanding the process of exploding stars is akin to reading our own origin story, according to Milisavljevic.

Located about 11,000 light-years away in the constellation of Cassiopeia, Cas A is not visible to the naked eye from Earth. Scientists have studied it for decades, using different wavelengths to gain insights into its structure and anatomy, much like how infrared cameras provide different information than visible light cameras.

The new image captured by the JWST’s 18-mirror honeycomb structure reveals incredible detail of Cas A. Mid-infrared light has been translated into visible light, allowing scientists to analyze the details and structures of the remnant. The image shows great curtains of material in shades of red and orange, representing the collision of the star’s material with circumstellar gas and dust. Bursts of pink indicate the presence of composite elements such as oxygen, argon, and neon, shining in the remnant.

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