It wasn’t planned, but the James Webb spotted his first supernova

It wasn't planned, but the James Webb spotted his first supernova

An unexpected “photobomb” which could well offer new subjects of study to the star of telescopes.

Astronomers recently made an intriguing discovery while reviewing a series of new snapshots produced by the James Webb Space Telescope; they spotted a surprisingly bright object in a portion of the sky where the venerable Hubble had yet seen nothing. And if the researchers’ predictions are correct, it could be a supernova; that would be a small event in itself, since the JWST was not designed to observe them.

In any case, this is the opinion of Mike Engesser, an American astronomer from the Space Telescope Science Institute interviewed by Inverse; he seems relatively sure of his facts, even if he willingly concedes that a small part of uncertainty remains. ” We would need more time and more data, but the ones we have correspond to a supernova anyway, so it’s a very good candidate. “, he says.

Supernovae, objects difficult to study

If this observation excites the team so much, it is because these events are particularly difficult to catch in the act. There are different types, but very commonly, supernovae are cataclysmic phenomena that accompany the end of a star’s life.

They are associated with flashes of light of phenomenal intensity which can make it possible to locate them… provided you look in the right place at the right time. And as soon as you factor those factors into the equation, everything becomes much more complicated.

An image of the same portion of sky taken by Hubble. The famous supernova is indistinguishable here. © STScI via Inverse

Telescope observation time is at a premium, so astronomers can’t afford to stare at an old star all the time in the hope that it will shatter; to observe them, you have to cross your fingers that an event of this kind “photobombs” another observation.

However, the sudden increase in luminosity only lasts a few days; after this time, the latter gradually decreases for a few months, which makes the observations less and less interesting; The optimal observation window is therefore ridiculously narrow, knowing that a star can easily live for several tens of millions of years.

And there is one more thing that the researchers say should have made this observation particularly unlikely in the Webb’s case. Remember that it tracks extremely distant objects; after all, its purpose is to trace back to the origins of our universe. By definition, it therefore scans a very small portion of the celestial vault. This corresponds to the surface of the sky that would be hidden from you if you held a grain of sand at arm’s length!

The JWST, future supernova hunter?

It is easy to understand why the researchers did not expect to flush out supernovae there. But this observation changes the situation; according to Engesser, if the JWST was able to capture this event, there is no reason that it could not find it in lots of other shots! ” We could have a very good chance of detecting supernovae all the time “, he rejoices.

In any case, this would be progress as substantial as it was unexpected; today there are cohorts of astronomers who spend most of their time chasing these phenomena, and one can imagine that they are already rubbing their hands.

These phenomena are full of clues about the life cycle of stars and their role in the global dynamics of the cosmos; researchers even expect that the oldest supernovae ever observed will contain interesting information about the beginnings of the universe and the very first generations of stars.

If the JWST does locate them, it will certainly be a great resource for specialists. Definitely, the JWST never stops pushing the limits of astronomy!