It was one of the first famous images revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this year: a stunning shroud of gas and dust illuminated by a dying star at its heart.
Now, analyzing data from the most powerful telescope in history, researchers have found evidence of at least two previously unknown stars hiding in the stellar cemetery.
Located about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the Milky Way, the Southern Ring Nebula was previously thought to contain two stars.
Located at the center of the nebula is a white dwarf star that, in its death throes, hurls down torrential rains of gas and dust that have formed the surrounding cloud for thousands of years.
The superhot white dwarf, which has lost its brightness, is the less visible of the two stars seen in Webb images released in July.
The white dwarf offered astronomers a view of how our own Sun might one day die—billions of years from now.
Unlike our lone Sun, it has a companion that is brighter than the two stars in Webb’s images.
This binary system, prevalent throughout the Milky Way, does not explain the “unusual” structure of the nebula, Philippe Amram, an astrophysicist at France’s Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory, told AFP.
Amram is a co-author of a study published in the journal Science. Nature Astronomy On Thursday, he used Webb’s observations to reveal more of the nebula’s secrets.
Amram said that since the nebula was discovered by British astronomer John Herschel in 1835, astronomers have wondered why it “has such a strange shape, not really spherical.”
By analyzing data from Webb’s infrared cameras, the researchers said they found evidence of at least two other stars inside the nebula with a diameter equivalent to 1,500 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto.
Although the new pair is slightly further away from the white dwarf and its companion, all four stars, possibly even five, are at the center of the nebula.
Amram said they are close enough to interact with each other and their “energy exchanges” create the strange shape of the nebula.
The Webb telescope, which has been in operation since July, has already released an unprecedented array of data, and scientists are hopeful this will herald a new era of discovery.
Orsola De Marco, the diffuse death of the multiple star system and the resulting planetary nebula as observed by JWST, Nature Astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01845-2. www.nature.com/articles/s41550-022-01845-2
© 2022 AFP
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