Massive stars are sprinters. It might seem counterintuitive that stars 100 or 200 times more massive than our Sun could only survive for as few as 10 million years. Especially since smaller stars like our Sun can last 10 billion years. Massive stars have huge reservoirs of hydrogen to burn through, but their massive size means fusion eats through their hydrogen much more quickly.
These massive stars are destined to reach the finish line quickly and explode as supernovae. There’s no other conclusion for them. But before they explode, some of them become Wolf-Rayet stars. That stage doesn’t last long, and the James Webb Space Telescope caught one in the act.
Back in August, an early release image from the James Webb Space Telescope revealed a bizarre sight: as many as 17 concentric rings encircling a binary star system, called Wolf-Rayet 140. Was it a spiral nebula, an alien megastructure or just an optical illusion?
The answer, revealed today, is dust. A new paper published in Nature Astronomy explains how stellar winds in this odd binary system blasts dust into near-perfect concentric circles every time the two stars come close to each other in their eccentric orbits.
We often think of supernova explosions as inevitable for large stars. Big star runs out of fuel, gravity collapses its core and BOOM! But astronomers have long thought at least one type of large star didn’t end with a supernova. Known as Wolf-Rayet stars, they were thought to end with a quiet collapse of their core into a black hole. But a new discovery finds they might become supernovae after all.
When stars reach the end of their lifespan, many undergo gravitational collapse and explode into a supernova, In some cases, they collapse to become black holes and release a tremendous amount of energy in a short amount of time. These are what is known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), and they are one of the most powerful events in the known Universe.
Recently, an international team of astronomers was able to capture an image of a newly-discovered triple star system surrounded by a “pinwheel” of dust. This system, nicknamed “Apep”, is located roughly 8,000 light years from Earth and destined to become a long-duration GRB. In addition, it is the first of its kind to be discovered in our galaxy.
Stretching across three light years of space and located about 3,000 light years away in the direction of the constellation of Musca, an incredible and rather understudied planetary nebula awaits a new hand to bring out new light. While most planetary nebula have a rather normal, bloated star look, NGC 5189 shows an extraordinary amount of loops and curls not normally seen in objects of its type. Just what is going on here?
This incredibly detailed image comes from the one and only Robert Gendler and was assembled from three separate data sources. The detail for the nebula is from Hubble Space Telescope data, the background starfield from the Gemini Observatory/AURA and the color data from his own equipment. Here we see fanciful gas clouds with thick clumps decorating them. Intense radiation and gas streams from the central dying star in waves, fashioning out hollows and caves in the enveloping clouds. While these clumps in the clouds may appear as wispy details, each serves as a reminder of just how vast space can be… for each an every one of them is about the same size as our Solar System.
“The complex morphology of this PN is puzzling and has not been studied in detailed so far. Our investigation reveals the presence of a new dense and cold infrared torus (alongside the optical one) which probably generated one of the two optically seen bipolar outflows and which might be responsible for the twisted appearance of the optical torus via an interaction process.” says L. Sabin (et al). ” The high-resolution MES-AAT spectra clearly show the presence of filamentary and knotty structures as well as three expanding bubbles. Our findings therefore suggest that NGC 5189 is a quadrupolar nebula with multiple sets of symmetrical condensations in which the interaction of outflows has determined its complex morphology.”
And just as incredibly large as some things can be – others can be as small. At the heart of NGC 5189 shines the tiny light of its central star… no bigger than Earth. It wobbles its way through time, rotating rapidly and spewing material into space like a runaway fire hydrant. Astronomers speculate there might be a binary star hidden inside, since usually planetary nebulae of this type have them. However, only one star has been found at the nebula’s center and it might be one very big, very bad wolf.
“Around 15% are known or suspected binaries, while the remaining 18% are non-emission line nuclei which require further study. Selecting for LIS (low ionization structures) therefore will give a mix of mostly binary and emission line nuclei which will require further observations to separate.” explains B. Miszalski (et al). “Almost all the [WR] CSPN in the sample belong to the hot [WO] type that have more extreme and chaotic LIS covering their entire nebulae, presumably due to turbulence from the strong [WR] winds disrupting pre-existing LIS.”
Just why is this celestial tapestry so complicated and complex? The answer isn’t a simple one – it’s one that has many plausible theories. We know that when a star similar to the Sun expends its fuel, it will begin to shed its outer layers… layers which normally take on very basic shape. These “normal” shapes are usually a sphere, sometimes a double lobe and at times it can be a ring or helix. However, NGC 5189 just doesn’t follow rules. Over time, researchers have speculated it has given off different outlfows at different stages – one prominent as a very visible torus situated around mid-point in the structure – consistent with the theory of a binary star system with a precessing symmetry axis. Still, there is clearly more research needed.
“Our preliminary results of a comparative spectroscopic study of these two objects shows that the chemical composition of the two nebulae is completely different, even though their morphology is most probably quite similar.” says VF Polcaro (et al). ” In addition, the PN appears much more chemically homogeneous. These features are clearly associated with the evolutionary paths of the stars.”
“The striking broad emission line spectroscopic appearance of Wolf-Rayet (WR) stars has long defied analysis, due to the extreme physical conditions within their line and continuum forming regions.” explains Paul Crowther. “Theoretical and observational evidence that WR winds depend on metallicity is presented, with implications for evolutionary models, ionizing fluxes, and the role of WR stars within the context of core-collapse supernovae and long-duration gamma ray bursts.”
Is NGC 5189 the handiwork of a binary star? Or is it the product of an intensely hot Wolf-Rayet? Like the proverbial Tootsie Pop equation… the world may never know.
Many thanks to Robert Gendler for sharing this incredible image with us.
Massive stars live fast and die young. But they are also beautiful. This amazingly spectacular new image from ESO shows the brilliant and unusual star Wolf-Rayet 22 nestled within billowing, colorful folds of the Carina Nebula. WR 22 is one of many exceptionally hot and brilliant stars contained by the beautiful Carina Nebula (also known as NGC 3372), a huge region of star formation in the southern Milky Way. The image was captured by ESO’s Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Wolf–Rayet stars are named after the two French astronomers who first identified them in the mid-nineteenth century, and WR 22 is one of the most massive ones we know of. It is a member of a double star system and has been measured to have a mass at least 70 times that of the Sun. Although the star lies over 5000 light-years from the Earth, it is so bright that it can just be faintly seen with the unaided eye under good conditions.
The colorful backdrop of the Carina Nebula is created by the interactions between the intense ultraviolet radiation coming from WR 22 and other hot massive stars within the nebula, and the vast gas clouds, mostly hydrogen, from which they formed. The central part of this enormous complex of gas and dust lies off the left side of this picture as can be seen in image another image on the ESO website. This area includes the famous star Eta Carinae, one of the most massive stars and unstable stars in the universe.
Not only is a newly found black huge, it also is the most far-away stellar-mass black hole ever detected. “This is the most distant stellar-mass black hole ever weighed, and it’s the first one we’ve seen outside our own galactic neighborhood, the Local Group,” said Paul Crowther, from the University of Sheffield. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers peered six million light-years from Earth into a spiral galaxy called NGC 300 and found a black hole with a mass above fifteen times that of the Sun. This makes it the second most massive stellar-mass black hole ever found. But soon it could get bigger. The black hole appears to have a nearby partner, a massive Wolf–Rayet star which likely will become a black hole itself, and the two black holes could merge into an even more massive object.
In 2007, an X-ray source in NGC 300 was discovered with the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory and the Swift Observatory. “We recorded periodic, extremely intense X-ray emission, a clue that a black hole might be lurking in the area,” said team member Stefania Carpano from ESA.
Subsequent observations with the VLT’s FORS2 instrument (a visual and near UV FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph) confirmed their hunch, but also showed that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star circled each other every 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other.
“This is indeed a very ‘intimate’ couple,” said collaborator Robin Barnard. “How such a tightly bound system has been formed is still a mystery.”
Stellar-mass black holes are the extremely dense, final remnants of the collapse of very massive stars. These black holes have masses up to around twenty times the mass of the Sun, as opposed to supermassive black holes, found in the center of most galaxies, which can weigh a million to a billion times as much as the Sun. So far, around 20 stellar-mass black holes have been found.
Only one other system of this type has previously been seen, but other systems comprising a black hole and a companion star are not unknown to astronomers. Based on these systems, the astronomers see a connection between black hole mass and galactic chemistry.
“We have noticed that the most massive black holes tend to be found in smaller galaxies that contain less ‘heavy’ chemical elements,” said Crowther. “Bigger galaxies that are richer in heavy elements, such as the Milky Way, only succeed in producing black holes with smaller masses.”
Astronomers believe that a higher concentration of heavy chemical elements influences how a massive star evolves, increasing how much matter it sheds, resulting in a smaller black hole when the remnant finally collapses.
In less than a million years, it will be the Wolf–Rayet star’s turn to go supernova and become a black hole. “If the system survives this second explosion, the two black holes will merge, emitting copious amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves as they combine,” said Crowther.
But this won’t happen for a few billion years. “Our study does however show that such systems might exist, and those that have already evolved into a binary black hole might be detected by probes of gravitational waves, such as LIGO or Virgo.”