NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has begun the study of one of the most renowned supernovae, SN 1987A (Supernova 1987A). Located 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, SN 1987A has been a target of intense observations at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to radio for nearly 40 years, since its discovery in February of 1987. New observations by Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) provide a crucial clue to our understanding of how a supernova develops over time to shape its remnant.
This image reveals a central structure like a keyhole. This center is packed with clumpy gas and dust ejected by the supernova 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.
A bright, equatorial ring surrounds the inner keyhole, forming a band around the waist that connects two faint arms of hourglass-shaped outer rings. The equatorial ring, formed from material ejected tens of thousands of years before the supernova explosion, contains bright hot spots, which appeared as the supernova’s shock wave hit the ring. 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.
While these structures have been observed to varying degrees by NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and Chandra X-ray Observatory, the unparalleled sensitivity and spatial resolution of Webb revealed a new feature in this supernova remnant — small crescent-like structures. These crescents are thought to be a part of the outer layers of gas shot out from the supernova explosion. Their brightness may be an indication of limb brightening, an optical phenomenon that results from viewing the expanding material in three dimensions. In other words, our viewing angle makes it appear that there is more material in these two crescents than there actually may be.
The high resolution of these images is also…