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

An unexpected “photobomb”, which could well offer new study subjects for the telescope star.

Astronomers recently made an exciting discovery while reviewing a series of new snapshots produced by the James Webb Space Telescope; they discovered a surprisingly bright object in a part of the sky where the venerable Hubble had yet to see anything. And if the scientists’ predictions are right, it could be a supernova; that would be a small event in itself, as JWST was not designed to observe them.

At least that’s what Mike Engesser, an American astronomer from the Space Telescope Science Institute interviewed by Inverse thinks; he seems relatively certain of his facts, although he willingly admits that a small amount of uncertainty remains. ” We would need more time and data, but the ones we have are similar to a supernova anyway, so it’s a very good candidate. “, he says.

Supernovae, difficult objects to study

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

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

An image of the same part of the sky taken by Hubble. The famous supernova cannot be distinguished 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 hoping it will shatter; to observe them, cross your fingers that an event of this nature “photobombs” another observation.

However, the sudden increase in brightness lasts only a few days; after this time the latter gradually diminishes for some months, making 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 thousands of years.

And there’s one more thing that the researchers say should have made this sighting especially unlikely in 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 part of the firmament. This is equivalent to the surface of the sky that would be hidden from you if you held a grain of sand at arm’s length!

JWST, the supernova hunter of the future?

It’s easy to understand why scientists didn’t expect to flush out supernovae there. But this observation is a game-changer; according to Engesser, if JWST was able to capture this event, there’s no reason it couldn’t find it in many other images! ” We could have a very good chance of detecting supernovae all the time “, he rejoices.

In any case, this would be an advance as significant 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; scientists even expect that the oldest supernovae ever observed will contain interesting information about the beginning of the universe and the very first generations of stars.

If JWST finds them, it will certainly be a great resource for specialists. Absolutely, JWST never stops pushing the boundaries of astronomy!

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