The image of the death of a star

The image of the death of a star

About 2,500 years ago, a star expelled most of its gas, forming the beautiful nebula NGC 3132 , chosen as one of the top five James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) image packages.


A team of nearly 70 astronomers from 66 organizations in Europe, North, South and Central America and Asia used images from the JWST to reconstruct the messy death of this star.

“It was nearly three times the size of our Sun, but much younger, about 500 million years old . It created curtains of gas that expanded from the ejection site, leaving a remnant of a dense white dwarf star, about half the mass of the Sun, but about the size of the Earth,” explains Professor Orsola De Marco. lead author of the paper, from the Research Center for Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrophotonics at Macquarie University. “We were surprised to find evidence of two or three companion stars who likely precipitated her death, as well as another ‘innocent bystander’ star who was involved in the interaction,” says the professor.

The study is based on images from the JWST supplemented by data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, the San Pedro de Mártir Telescope in Mexico, the Gaia Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. The work paves the way for future JWST observations of nebulae, providing insight into fundamental astrophysical processes, including colliding winds and interactions between binary stars, with implications for supernovae and gravitational wave systems.


Astronomers got together online and developed theories and models around the mid-infrared image to piece together how the star died.


At the center of the nebula shines a very hot central star, a white dwarf that has burned off its hydrogen. “This star is now small and hot, but it’s surrounded by cool dust,” said Joel Kastner, another team member, of the Rochester Institute of Technology USA. There are also a number of spiral structures that radiate away from the centre. These concentric arcs form when a companion star orbits the central star as it loses mass. Another companion is further away and can be seen in the image.

De Marco says: “We first inferred the presence of a nearby companion due to the dusty disk around the central star, then a more distant companion that created the arcs and a super distant companion that can be seen in the image. Once we saw the jets, we knew there must be another star or even two in the center; therefore, we believe that there are one or two companions very close, another at medium distance and one very distant. If so, there are four or even five objects involved in this messy death .”

All images and detailed analysis are available here

  • The messy death of a multiple star system and the resulting planetary nebula as observed by JWST (
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