The James Webb Telescope spots its first supernova

The find is surprising as that is not what the tool was designed to do.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A supernova in action.jpg
An illustration of a supernova in action.cokada/iStock
  • The supernova was spotted by the telescope twice in five days.
  • The tool was not designed for such discoveries.
  • Astronomers now hope it can be used for further such missions.

Four days ago, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) broke its own record for the most distant galaxy ever observed. A week prior, a team had unearthed an observation of a galaxy that existed 400 million years after the Big Bang. This week, a new analysis revealed a galaxy a mere 235 million years after the Big Bang.

The first ever JWST spotted supernova

Now, the tool may have spotted its first ever supernova, according to a report by Inverse.

"We suspect it's a supernova," astronomer Mike Engesser of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) told Inverse.

What made the discovery even more tantalizing is that the telescope was not built for such finds.

The galaxy the supernova is located in is called SDSS.J141930.11+5251593 and was observed by JWST twice in a period of five days. The tool found that the supernova dimmed, just slightly, over that time.

This is considered typical supernova behavior.

"We would need more time series data to make a determination, but the data we do have does match that of a supernova, so it's a very good candidate," said Engesser.

Not designed for such discoveries

"Primarily, it's exciting because we have shown that we're able to find and detect new transients with Webb, which was something that JWST is not designed to do," continued Engesser. "But it's one of the things we're showing we're able to do in sort of an ad hoc way."

The James Webb Telescope spots its first supernova
An illustration of JWST

Finding celestial objects like supernovas is usually left to ground telescopes, which is what makes the discovery even more exciting and unique. It showcases JWST's unique versatility and power.

The new find is particularly exceptional as JWST looks only at small patches of the sky compared to ground telescopes.

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"So the actual likelihood that you'll find a transient in the field you're looking at is fairly small — or at least we thought it would be small," said Engesser. "But as you've probably heard, every JWST field is a deep field at this point, so there's galaxies everywhere, and now we're thinking, oh, we might have a really good chance of detecting supernovae all the time."

Supernovae, by their very nature, fade over a few months, indicating that astronomers don't usually get to see their much later stages. These stages are crucial to scientists trying to figure out more about what type of stars exploded, along with the physics of that stellar explosion.

JWST’s inherently deeper view of the universe could now reveal those much-needed details even several years later after the supernovae’s formation. These details could, in turn, help scientists comprehend the very fabric of the universe and how it's stretching and expanding over time. Way to go, JWST! We will be waiting for more discoveries!

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