NASA discovers new structures in supernova

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has observed previously undiscovered structures in the SN 1987A supernova. Researchers hope the new observations will shed light on how stars die. Photo Courtesy of NASA

Aug. 31 (UPI) -- NASA has released a new image of a supernova that is located 168,000 light years away from Earth using the James Webb Space Telescope and has discovered previously undetected structures within it.

SN 1987A was discovered on February 24, 1987, by astronomers at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

The supernova was then observed in infrared by the Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003 and operated until 2020.

The James Webb Space Telescope uses an instrument called a Near-Infrared Camera to detect light at wavelengths that are invisible to the naked eye.

"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," NASA said in a press release Thursday.

The supernova has a bright disk surrounding it that was formed by matter ejected by the star before it died. The explosion of the supernova caused hot bright spots to form in the structure of the ring.

"While these structures have been observed to varying degrees by NASA's Hubble and Spitzer Space telescopes and Chandrea AX-ray Observatory, the unparalleled sensitivity and spatial resolution of Webb revelated a new feature in this supernova remnant -- small crescent-like structures," NASA said.

Researchers hope the new data can be used to better understand the manner in which stars die.

"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," NASA said.

Though the new revelations could provide a significant boost to humanity's understanding of supernovas, NASA says there is still much to discover.

"Despite the decades of study since the supernova's initial discovery, there are several mysteries that remain, particularly surrounding the neutron star that should have been formed in the aftermath of the supernova explosion," NASA said.