A new James Webb image shows ghostly ripple rings around a distant star

The strange cosmic ripples have prompted alien origin theories.
Chris Young
The new James Webb image of WR 140.
The new James Webb image of WR 140.

Source: NASA/ESA /CSA /Ryan Lau /JWST ERS Team /Judy Schmidt 

The James Webb Space Telescope captured images of concentric "ripple" rings around a distant star, and astronomers are scratching their heads over the new data, a report from LiveScience reveals.

The baffling image was taken in July, shortly after Jame Webb started science operations and revealed its first batch of full-color images. It was later found and released on Twitter by citizen scientist Judy Schmidt, who has revealed other impressive images to the public, such as one of the spiral galaxy NGC 628.

Schmidt trawls through raw public data to find new James Webb images that have not yet been presented to the public in all their glory. Her latest finding shows a star called WR140, which is surrounded by ripples that fade away as they move further away from the source.

A 'bonkers' new James Webb image

WR140, which is located roughly 5,600 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, is a variable star, meaning it observably changes brightness over extended periods. Strangely, the ripples seen in the new James Webb image are not perfectly circular, prompting some to theorize they might have alien origins.

In a Twitter thread, Mark McCaughrean, a science advisor to the European Space Agency, described the image as "bonkers."

He explained that WR140 is a Wolf-Rayet star, meaning it has "ejected most of [its] hydrogen envelopes [and is] fusing helium or [has] stopped altogether."

"The six-pointed blue structure is an artifact due to optical diffraction from the bright star WR140 in this #JWST MIRI image," McCaughrean continued. "But red curvy-yet-boxy stuff is real, a series of shells around WR140. Actually, in space. Around a star." He added that he doesn't understand "why there are discrete, separated shells rather than a spiral structure," but scientists are now working to explain the intricacies of the observations.

In fact, Ryan Lau, an astronomer at NOIRLab and principal investigator of the project that acquired the observations, replied to McCaughrean's Twitter thread. He said, "our paper on this has been submitted, so please stay tuned for the full story."

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The future is very bright for James Webb

The new observation is another indicator of the immense power of the $10 billion James Webb space observatory, only two short months into the telescope's science operations. It is the most powerful observatory ever sent to space, and it has already beaten the record for the most distant galaxy ever observed — and will likely do so again several times over.

Other recent notable observations include infrared images of Jupiter, as well as new images of exoplanets. It is an incredibly exciting time for astronomy, and the next decade or so of James Webb observations is set to greatly enhance our understanding of the universe.

Over that time, Webb is expected to continue to shed new light on some of the very first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. According to some, it may even help us find extraterrestrial intelligence somewhere out in the stars.

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