JWST unveils inner structure of closest supernova SN 1987A

This supernova resides 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) captured this detailed image of SN 1987A (Supernova 1987A).

In 1987, astronomers spotted one of the brightest stellar explosions in the night sky. The SN 1987A (Supernova 1987A) explosion unleashed massive energy and produced a dazzling burst of light observable from Earth.

This astronomical event is one of the closest supernovae observed in centuries. 

Since then, astronomers have been monitoring its expanding debris to gain insights into stellar evolution processes. 

This supernova — created from the violent aftermath of a giant star’s death — resides 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a Milky Way satellite galaxy.

The supernova produces a variety of electromagnetic radiation, ranging from radio waves to gamma rays. It has previously been investigated using powerful observatories like NASA's Hubble and Spitzer Space Observatories and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. 

The arrival of the cutting-edge James Webb Space Telescope has revealed the structure of this iconic supernova in greater detail than ever before.

Webb's Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) captured the most detailed images, revealing key structural features of a supernova, including its equatorial and outer rings, crescent shape, inner ejecta, or keyhole.    

The structure of the supernova 

The blueish region in the center of the image displays dense clusters of gas and dust released by this stellar explosion. “The dust is so dense that even near-infrared light that Webb detects can’t penetrate it, shaping the dark “hole” in the keyhole,” mentioned the official release

The inner keyhole is surrounded by an equatorial ring and a crescent-shaped structure (with a reddish tint). 

The luminous, brilliant equatorial ring was produced by debris flung tens of thousands of years before the supernova explosion. This ring also harbors glowing hot spots that developed when the supernova's shock wave slammed into this structure. 

“Now spots are found even exterior to the ring, with diffuse emission surrounding it. These are the locations of supernova shocks hitting more exterior material,” added the release. 

Webb's sensitivity found a new structural feature within this supernova remnant: small crescent-shaped structures. These crescents are assumed to be part of the supernova explosion's outer layers of gas.

Neutron stars are typically formed after a supernova explosion, but the one found in SN 1987A has remained elusive so far — mainly due to the dense core. This explosion most likely symbolizes the death of a blue supergiant star, one of the universe's most massive and bright stars. 

JWST unveils inner structure of closest supernova SN 1987A
Webb’s NIRCam captured this detailed image of SN 1987A, which has been annotated to highlight key structures.

Webb will continue to monitor the supernova 

The Webb team will point the telescope in the direction of this supernova to track the evolution of this expanding supernova remnant over time. 

The telescope will also look deep inside the structure's core for evidence of the presence of the mysterious neutron star, which is yet to be discovered despite the closeness of the supernova from Earth. 

Webb telescope, an engineering marvel of the twenty-first century, was launched to a location in space one million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth in December 2021. Since July 2022, the space observatory has had its hands full, revealing exciting scientific information nearly every week. 

One of Webb's primary goals is to detect early supernovae and how they influenced the young universe. 

In July, researchers published a new study based on Webb's data that revealed supernovae' dust was one of the key sources for the formation of new stars in early galaxies.

Scientists sometimes utilize various observations of SN 1987A better to understand the behavior of the other stellar explosions. 

In this aforementioned study, they used dust process data from SN 1987A to draw a better conclusion.

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