A stunning image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows an incredible cosmic view: at least 17 concentric rings of dust erupting from a pair of stars in a fingerprint-like pattern. These two stars, collectively known as Wolf-Rayet 140, are located just over 5,000 light-years from our home planet.
As the two stars approached, their stellar winds interacted, compressing the gas and creating dust to create the rings. The orbits of the stars bring them close together about once every eight years, and the dust loops act as timekeepers, marking the passage of time like tree rings.
Making dust from gas requires the same conditions and materials as baking bread from flour. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in stars, but it cannot create dust on its own. However, Wolf-Rayet stars lose so much mass that they also release more complicated elements, such as carbon, which are usually located deep within a star. Where the winds of the two stars meet, the heavier components are squeezed, just as bread is when it is kneaded by two people.
Although the dust rings, or shells as Lau and his colleagues call them, are thicker and wider than they appear in the picture, Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the telescope’s overall sensitivity make it particularly suitable for examining them. . Webb’s scientific instruments are capable of detecting infrared light, a spectrum of which is beyond the range of human vision.
MIRI can see colder things, like the dust rings, because it detects longer infrared wavelengths than Webb’s other sensors. The MIRI spectrometer also showed the composition of the dust, which was mainly composed of debris ejected from a class of stars known as Wolf-Rayet stars.
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To collapse into a black hole, Wolf-Rayet stars, which are O-type stars but born at least 25 times as massive as our sun, are on their last legs. Wolf-Rayet stars burn hotter than when they were young, creating huge winds that drive massive amounts of gas into space. It is possible that the Wolf-Rayet star in this binary system has lost more than half of its mass through this mechanism.
While other Wolf-Rayet systems are known to generate dust, no systems that generate rings have been found. Wolf-Rayet star WR 140 has an unusual ring pattern due to its elongated orbit. Before the stars are about as close together as the distance between Earth and the sun, and their winds collide, the gas isn’t under enough pressure to generate dust. In a circular orbit, Wolf-Rayet binary stars can continuously generate dust.