NASA’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope has once again blown away its predecessor, the Hubble telescope, by capturing a new image of an iconic supernova remnant in the greatest detail yet.
Supernova 1987A was first discovered in 1987, as its name suggests. A supergiant exploded ,, creating a bright flash of light. That light faded over several days and ultimately left behind a ring of gas and dust astronomers see today.
The Supernova 1987A remnant is located 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is one of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way, according to NASA.
The new image, below, shows better than ever that the supernova remnant’s center has a structure shaped like a keyhole, visible in blue.
The “hole” at the centre is so densely packed with gas and dust – material that was ejected from the dying star during its explosion – that the near infrared light Webb captures can’t penetrate through.
Hubble picked up on that keyhole structure a bit, but its best attempt kind of looks like a blurry UFO in a ’70s movie.
That 2019 image, below, involved collaboration with two other telescopes: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Hubble had also spotted the supernova remnant from a distance.
Thanks to the new image’s unprecedented resolution, Webb has revealed a couple of features in the supernova remnant that astronomers couldn’t previously see. They could offer clues as to how the supernova has evolved over time.
Webb spotted 2 features in the supernova that Hubble missed
The pearl-like ring of bubbles of light surrounding the supernova’s center is called its “equatorial ring.” Those hotspots formed when the supernova’s shockwave slammed into the equatorial ring of gas the star had ejected tens of thousands of years before it exploded, NASA said. Hubble did a pretty good job of capturing that.
What Hubble missed, though, is a faint outer ring with more of these bright hotspots surrounding the entire cloud of the Supernova 1987A remnant.
Webb has also revealed new crescent-like structures within the remnant that Hubble didn’t notice.
NASA believes the crescents, shown in the image above, are the outer layers of gas that propelled out during the supernova explosion. They may even create an optical illusion.
“Our viewing angle gives the impression that these two crescents contain more matter than they actually do,” NASA stated in its release on this new photograph.
“Despite the decades of study since the supernova’s initial discovery, there are several mysteries that remain, particularly surrounding the neutron star that should have been formed in the aftermath of the supernova explosion,” NASA wrote in its press release, adding that Webb will continue observing it.