The James Webb Space Telescope captured a new image that shows dust plumes formed by violent interactions between stars.
This image is part of new research that reveals how intense starlight in space can push matter around. It focuses on a double-star system located 5,000 light years away from Earth in the Cygnus constellation.
The star system, WR140, is composed of a Wolf Rayet star, and a blue Supergiant star. It takes eight years for the orbit to complete. O-type stars are the most massive known star types. The blue supergiant is an O-type star. As they reach the end of their lives, only a few massive stars can become Wolf-Rayets. This stage is only for a few hundred thousand years.
Two decades ago, astronomers used the W.M. to observe the binary star system. Keck Observatory, Hawaii.
Dust plumes are released every eight years by the stars when they come closer to each other. They can travel thousands of miles between Earth and the sun. The plumes were observed by researchers to determine how starlight affects matter. Their study was published in Nature on Wednesday.
Radiation pressure is a form of momentum that can be applied to matter by light, but this is difficult to see in space.
“It’s difficult to see starlight causing acceleration, because the force fades as you get further away, and other forces quickly take control,” stated Yinuo Han (doctoral student at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy) in a statement.
“To observe acceleration at the point that it becomes detectable, the material must be relatively close to the star or have extra radiation pressure. WR140, a binary star whose ferocious radio field supercharges these effects and puts them within reach for our high-precision data.
Stars all generate their stellar winds, which are streams of gas that are blown out into space. But massive Wolf-Rayet star clusters can produce winds similar to a stellar hurricane. In the later stages of their lives, Wolf-Rayet stars have lost their hydrogen layer. While hydrogen can’t create dust by itself, other elements in the star’s interior like carbon can.
In the fast whirling winds, carbon condenses into a sooty powder that glows in an infrared light invisible to the human eye. Telescopes can detect this warm, glowing light.
According to the team’s observations, the dust plumes formed where the stellar winds of both giant stars collide. This creates a cone-shaped shockfront between the stars.
The shock front moves as the stars move through an oval-shaped orbit. This causes the dust-like smoke plume to spiral. A circular orbit would create a pinwheel-like pattern if the stars were in a circle. The oval-shaped orbit causes delays in dust production, which makes the dust plumes resemble shells or rings.
The final result looks like an uneven bull’s eye or a spiderweb.
The Webb telescope could see much more into the binary star system than ground-based telescopes. It also observed nearly 20 accelerating dust plumes interconnected.
“There seemed to have been a strange-looking diffraction pattern, which I worried was caused by the star’s extreme brightness,” stated Ryan Lau, principal investigator for the Webb Early Release Science program, and assistant astronomer at NASA’s NOIRLab.
“But, I soon realized that I wasn’t looking at a diffraction chart, but rather rings of dust around WR 140 — at most 17 of them.
Webb’s observations were published Wednesday by Nature Astronomy.
Peter Tuthill, a coauthor of the study and a professor at The University of Sydney’s School of Physics, said in a statement that “Like clockwork, this star puffs out sculpted smoking rings every eight years with all this wonderful Physics written then inflated into the wind like a banner for us to see.”
“Eight years later, as the binary returns to its orbit, another appears, the same as before, streaming out of space within the bubble of the previous one like a series of giant, nested Russian dolls.”
Researchers had the perfect target to study each dust spiral’s expansion rate because of our star system’s predictable production of a plume of dust every eight systems. They were found to be expanding at a constant speed but accelerating.
Tuthill stated that while we knew in one sense that this was the cause of the outflow, I didn’t think we would be able to see the physics at play like this. “When I examine the data now, I can see WR140’s plume unfolding like a giant sail made out of dust. It makes a sudden jump forward when it captures the photon wind from the star like a yacht caught in a gust.
According to the study authors, Webb’s sensitiveness will enable astronomers to observe more Wolf-Rayet stars with their fascinating physics in the future.