James Webb’s firsts keep coming, with the new space telescope recently spotting what may be the most distant galaxy ever observed. Now it may have spotted its first supernova.
As reported by Inverse, researchers using Webb believe they observed a supernova using the NIRCam instrument. They compared the Webb data to data collected using Hubble and found a bright object that could be a star that just went supernova.
A supernova occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel and reaches the end of its life. When the star collapses, it sheds much of its material in a huge explosion that emits large amounts of light. This light is so bright that it can be spotted at great distances. Webb spotted such a bright flash in the galaxy SDSS.J141930.11+5251593. The telescope made two observations of the galaxy five days apart, and in the second observation the flash was less bright, suggesting it is fading over time.
“We would need more time series data to make a decision, but the data we have is consistent with a supernova, so it’s a very good candidate,” lead author Mike Engesser told Inverse. from the Space Telescope Science Institute.
This finding is rather surprising, even with Webb’s extreme sensitivity. Since supernovae are transient events, that is, they don’t last long, you have to be lucky to observe one when it occurs. Although the supernova technically happened billions of years ago, we only see it now because it takes time for light to reach us from the galaxy far away.
Webb was not designed to detect supernovae, but researchers are making the most of the data collected so far and finding surprising uses for it. The advantage of looking at this kind of target with Webb is that he will be able to observe the area around the supernova to see its effects and the consequences of such a large explosion.
Knowing more about supernovae is important not only for understanding star life cycles, but also for measuring the expansion of the universe. A class of supernovae called Type 1a are used as “mile markers” to measure distances because they have constant brightness levels and can be seen at great distances.