Webb Space Telescope Discovers Strange Cosmic “Fingerprint”

The two stars in Wolf-Rayet 140 produce shells of dust every eight years that look like rings, as seen in this image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Each ring was created when the stars came close together and their stellar winds collided, compressing the gas and forming dust. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JPL-Caltech

A new Webb image shows at least 17 dust rings created by a rare type of star and its companion locked in a celestial dance.

A remarkable cosmic sight is revealed in a new image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. At least 17 concentric dust rings are seen mysteriously emanating from a pair of stars. Collectively known as Wolf-Rayet 140, the duo is located just over 5,000 light-years from Earth.

Wolf-Rayet (often abbreviated as W-R or WR) stars are unusual stars that are very massive (over 40 times the mass of our Sun), extremely hot (from 20,000 K to around 210,000 K), and exceptionally bright. Wolf-Rayet stars were discovered in 1867 by C. J. Wolf and G. Rayet. These stars continually eject their outer atmosphere in bubble-like shells of particles and gas, creating a strong stellar wind. About 500 of these stars have been cataloged thus far in the Milky Way.

Each ring was formed when the stellar winds (streams of gas they blow into space) from the two stars collided as they approached one another, compressing the gas and generating dust. About every eight years, the stars’ orbits bring them together; the dust loops mark the passage of time, much like the growth rings on a tree trunk.

“We’re looking at over a century of dust production from this system,” said Ryan Lau. “The image also illustrates just how sensitive this telescope is. Before, we were only able to see two dust rings, using ground-based telescopes. Now we see at least 17 of them.” Lau is an astronomer at NSF’s NOIRLab and lead author of a new study about the system, published on October 12 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

In addition to Webb’s overall sensitivity, its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is uniquely qualified to study the dust rings – or what Lau and his colleagues call shells, because they are thicker and wider than they appear in the image. Webb’s science instruments detect infrared light, a range of wavelengths invisible to the human eye. MIRI detects the longest infrared wavelengths, which means it can often see cooler objects – including the dust rings – than Webb’s other instruments can. MIRI’s spectrometer also revealed the composition of the dust, formed mostly from material ejected by a type of star known as a Wolf-Rayet star.

The two stars in Wolf-Rayet 140 produce rings, or shells, of dust every time their orbits bring them together. A visualization of their orbits, shown in this video, helps to illustrate how their interaction produces the fingerprint-like pattern observed by NASA’s Webb space telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, JPL-Caltech

MIRI was developed through a 50-50 partnership between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California led the effort for NASA, and a multinational consortium of European astronomical institutes contributed for ESA.

A Wolf-Rayet star is an O-type star, born with at least 25 times more mass than our Sun, that is nearing the end of its life, when it will likely collapse and form a black hole. Burning hotter than in its youth, a Wolf-Rayet star generates powerful winds that push huge amounts of gas into space. The Wolf-Rayet star in this particular pair may have shed more than half its original mass via this process.

Forming Dust in the Wind

Transforming gas into dust is somewhat like turning flour into bread: It requires specific conditions and ingredients. The most common element found in stars, hydrogen, can’t form dust on its own. But because Wolf-Rayet stars shed so much mass, they also eject more complex elements typically found deep in a star’s interior, including carbon. The heavy elements in the wind cool as they travel into space and are then compressed where the winds from both stars meet, like when two hands knead dough.

Some other Wolf-Rayet systems form dust, but none is known to make rings like Wolf-Rayet 140 does. The unique ring pattern forms because the orbit of the Wolf-Rayet star in WR 140 is elongated, not circular. Only when the stars come close together – about the same distance between Earth and the Sun – and their winds collide is the gas under sufficient pressure to form dust. With circular orbits, Wolf-Rayet binaries can produce dust continuously.

This graphic shows the relative size of the Sun, upper left, compared to the two stars in the system known as Wolf-Rayet 140. The O-type star is roughly 30 times the mass of the Sun, while its companion is about 10 times the mass of the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Lau and his co-authors think WR 140’s winds also swept the surrounding area clear of residual material they might otherwise collide with, which may be why the rings remain so pristine rather than smeared or dispersed. There are likely even more rings that have become so faint and dispersed, not even Webb can see them in the data.

Wolf-Rayet stars may seem exotic compared to our Sun, but they may have played a role in star and planet formation. When a Wolf-Rayet star clears an area, the swept-up material can pile up at the outskirts and become dense enough for new stars to form. There is some evidence the Sun formed in such a scenario.

Using data from MIRI’s Medium Resolution Spectroscopy mode, the new study provides the best evidence yet that Wolf-Rayet stars produce carbon-rich dust molecules. What’s more, the preservation of the dust shells indicates that this dust can survive in the hostile environment between stars, going on to supply material for future stars and planets.

The catch is that while astronomers estimate that there should be at least a few thousand Wolf-Rayet stars in our galaxy, only about 600 have been found to date.

“Even though Wolf-Rayet stars are rare in our galaxy because they are short-lived as far as stars go, it’s possible they’ve been producing lots of dust throughout the history of the galaxy before they explode and/or form black holes,” said Patrick Morris, an astrophysicist at Caltech in Pasadena, California, and a co-author of the new study. “I think with NASA’s new space telescope we’re going to learn a lot more about how these stars shape the material between stars and trigger new star formation in galaxies.”

More About the Mission

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. It will solve astronomical mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant planets orbiting other stars, and probe the enigmatic structures and origins of our universe. JWST is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

George Rieke with the University of Arizona is the MIRI U.S. science team lead. Gillian Wright with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre is the MIRI European principal investigator. Alistair Glasse with UK ATC is the MIRI instrument scientist, and Michael Ressler is the U.S. project scientist at JPL. Laszlo Tamas with UK ATC manages the European Consortium. The MIRI cryocooler development was led and managed by JPL, in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

Kiran Fernandes

Kiran is your friendly neighbourhood tech enthusiast who's passionate about all kinds of tech, goes crazy over 4G and 5G networks, and has recently sparked an interest in sci-fi and cosmology.

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