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Forensic team of astronomers probe star’s messy death

Researchers looked at data from James Webb's image of the Southern Ring Nebula to piece together the events that led to the demise of the star that gave birth to the nebula.

James Webb Space Telescope | Southern ring nebulaImages of the Southern Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and O. De Marco (Macquarie University)).

Earlier this year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) wowed us with its first set of images, which included the Southern Ring Nebula. Also known as “eight burst,” the nebula was formed around 2,500 years ago when a dying star ejected most of its gas. Now, a team of over 70 astronomers from across the world have used images from the telescope to piece together the “messy” death of the star.

“It was nearly three times the size of our Sun, but much younger, about 500 million years old. It created shrouds of gas that have expanded out from the ejection site, and left a remnant dense white dwarf star, with about half the mass of the Sun, but approximately the size of the Earth,” said Orsola De Marco, lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy, in a press statement.

According to De Marco, the scientists also found evidence of two or three companion stars expedited the death of the star, and also an “innocent bystander” which got caught up in the interaction. An ultra-hot white dwarf star shines at the centre of the nebula, having burned up its hydrogen. The series of concentric arches moving out from the structure were created when a companion star orbits the central star as the latter was losing mass.

Apart from JWST images, the study also used data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the Sand Pedro de Martir Telesope, the Gaia Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists looked at a three-dimensional reconstruction of the data and saw pairs of protruding structure that may be formed when astronomical objects eject matter in jet form.

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“We first inferred the presence of a close companion because of the dusty disk around the central star, the further partner that created the arches and the super far companion that you can see in the image. Once we saw the jets, we knew there had to be another star or even two involved at the centre, so we believe there are one or two very close companions, an additional one at middle distance and one very far away. If this is the case, there are four or even five objects involved in this messy death,” added De Marco.

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 15:17 IST
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