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A new image captured by the James Webb Space Telescope shows rings of dust plumes caused by violent interactions between two stars.
The image is part of new research revealing how intense starlight can push matter into space by focusing on a double star system located 5,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus.
The star system, called WR140, includes the Wolf-Rayet star and a blue giant star that orbit each other in an orbit that takes eight years to complete. The blue giant is an O-type star, one of the most massive types of stars known. Only some massive stars evolve into Wolf-Right as they near the end of their life cycle. This stage lasts a few hundred thousand years.
Astronomers have observed the binary star system for two decades using the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Every eight years as the stars approach each other, they release dust plumes that extend thousands of times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. In their study published in the journal, the researchers noted the columns to measure how starlight affects matter temper nature Wednesday.
Light can exert a type of momentum called radiation pressure on matter, but it is difficult to determine in space.
“It’s hard to see starlight causing acceleration because force wears off with distance, and other forces quickly take over,” said study first author Yinuo Han, a doctoral student at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in the UK, in a statement.
“In order for us to experience acceleration at the level that can be measured, the material would have to be reasonably close to the star or the source of radiation pressure would be more powerful. WR140 is a binary star whose ferocious radiation field charges these effects, and puts them within reach of our high-resolution data.”
All stars generate their own stellar winds, or streams of gas that blast into space, but massive Wolf-Rayet stars can whip winds into something akin to a stellar cyclone. Wolf-Right stars later in their life cycle successfully volatilize their hydrogen layer. Hydrogen cannot form dust on its own, but other elements in the star’s core, such as carbon, can.
Carbon condenses into soot in fast-rotating winds, which glow in infrared light invisible to the human eye. But telescopes can detect this warm, glowing light.
The team’s observations revealed that dust plumes form where stellar winds from both giant stars collide, creating a cone-shaped shock front between the stars.
As the stars pass in their elliptical orbit, the shock front also moves, causing the plume of smoke-like dust to swirl. If the stars had a circular orbit, they would form a pinwheel pattern. Instead, the elliptical orbit causes delays in dust production causing dust plumes to resemble rings or shells.
The end result resembles an asymmetrical bull’s-eye or something resembling a spider’s web.
The Webb telescope was able to delve into the binary star system much deeper than terrestrial telescopes and observed approximately 20 columns of accelerating dust nested within each other. the magazine natural astronomy Web monitoring results were published on Wednesday.
Study co-author Peter Tuthill, a professor in the School of Physics at The University of Sydney, said in a statement.
“Eight years later when the duo returns to orbit, the other appears as before, flowing into space within the former bubble bubble, like a group of giant interlocking Russian dolls.”
The expected production of a dust plume every eight years in a star system provided the researchers with an ideal target to study the expansion rate of each dust vortex. Instead of a constant speed increase, they are observed accelerating.
“On the one hand, we’ve always known that this must be the cause of the outflow, but I never dreamed we’d be able to see physics work like this,” Tuthill said. “When I look at the data now, I see the plume of WR140 rolling like a giant sail made of dust. When it catches a photon wind flowing from the star, like a yacht catches a storm, it makes a sudden leap forward.”
Webb’s sensitivity will allow astronomers to make more observations of Wolf-Rayet stars and interesting physics in the future, according to the study’s authors.