The James Webb Space Telescope has surprised scientists when it unexpectedly discovered its first supernova, an explosion from a dying star. The evidence could potentially open up a whole new field of research opportunities, scientists say.
Only a few days after the start of its academic work, the James Webb Space TelescopeThe NIRCam camera of discovered an unexpectedly bright object in a galaxy called SDSS.J141930.11+5251593, about 3 to 4 billion light years out Earth. The bright object dimmed over a period of five days, suggesting it could be one supernova, caught by sheer luck shortly after the starburst. (The astronomers compared the new observations with archived data from the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm the light was new.)
The discovery is surprising since the James Webb Space Telescope was not built to look for supernovas; a task normally performed by large survey telescopes that scan large parts of the sky at short intervals. Webb, on the other hand, examines in great detail a very small area of the universe. For example the Deep field image released by US President Joe Biden In mid-July it covered an area the size of a grain of sand.
gallery: The first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope
Since the detection (opens in new tab) Within the first week of Webb’s scientific operations, astronomers were concluding that the depth of Webb’s images might actually compensate for the small area. Each deep-field image contains hundreds of galaxies — meaning hundreds of ways to spot a supernova.
The early detection suggests the telescope may be able to see supernovae on a regular basis Vice versa (opens in new tab). That would be exciting, especially since Webb is expected to see the earliest galaxies to form in the Universe in the first hundred million years thereafter Big Bang. Combine this ancient view with his unexpected supernova detection, and Webb could potentially capture the explosion of one of the first-generation stars that lit up the universe after the dark early ages. These stars, astronomers say, had a much simpler chemical composition than stars born in later epochs.
“We think stars were composed mostly and almost exclusively of hydrogen and helium for the first few million years, in contrast to the types of stars we have today,” Mike Engesser, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute that Webb runs , who led the team like this announced the discoverysaid Inverse. “They would have been massive – 200 to 300 times the size of ours Sun, and they would definitely have lived a kind of live fast, die young lifestyle. We haven’t really done seeing those kinds of explosions.”
The discovered supernova marks the death of a much younger star, only 3 to 4 billion years old, but it’s a promising start for a telescope built for something else entirely.
Supernovae are difficult to detect because the explosion itself lasts only a fraction of a second. The bright bubble of dust and gas that these star deaths produce fades after just a few days, so a telescope needs to be looking in the right direction at the right time to pick them up.
Now astronomers have to hope that Webb’s first supernova wasn’t just beginner’s luck.