There is far too much dust in the universe compared to what our calculations predict.
This major problem for astronomy, dubbed the “dust budget crisis,” must be resolved in order to recognize dust’s critical role in protecting stars, giving birth to planets, and hosting molecules necessary for life as we know it. are crucial to be able to predict better.
Researchers hope to finally solve the dust problem with the James Webb Space Telescope, which ends months of commissioning on July 12 with the release of its first operational images. Once Webb is ready, his set of early-stage observations will include dust-producing Wolf-Rayet binaries to better understand the history of dust formation.
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Webb will be better positioned than many other observatories to see this elusive connection. Using infrared light, it can see through dust clouds and its orbit in space means it is far from interfering light sources that could mess up dust density calculations.
Choosing Webb’s destination is also key to advancing the dusty puzzle. Unusually hot and bright, Wolf-Rayet stars could be giant dust producers after interacting with companion stars in binaries.
Astronomers usually detect these stellar interactions through pinwheel patterns that form as the two stars orbit each other and the winds that blow off the surfaces of those stars collide in space. However, because Wolf-Rayet stars are so bright, their luminosity overwhelms the fainter emissions from nearby dust.
However, Webb’s specialty optics will provide unprecedented views in the infrared. In addition, Webb has a higher resolution than NASA’s now-defunct Spitzer Space Telescope, which also observed in the infrared from space.
Long infrared wavelengths of light are valued not only for their ability to penetrate dust, but they can also provide the spectrum of elements in dust clouds. Some of these chemicals could be critical to the building blocks of life and give us clues about how dust spreads organic molecules around the universe.
“The mid-infrared light that Webb can see is exactly the wavelength of light that we want to look at to study the dust and its chemical composition,” said study leader Ryan Lau, a fellow at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). a statement for 2020 (opens in new tab) from the Webb Consortium.
Lau’s team will study two Wolf-Rayet binaries on Webb using two instruments: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS).
Under the microscope is WR 140, a well-studied star system that will serve as the basis to ensure Webb’s observations work as expected. Also on the list is WR 137, whose two stars will converge early in Webb’s mission in a potentially dust-producing event.
Lau’s study will be part of a series of scientific observations conducted by Webb during the telescope’s first five months of normal operation. In addition to examining our dusty origin story, the Wolf-Rayet observations help Webb astronomers test Webb’s dynamic range, or the difference between the brightest and faintest objects it can observe.
Learning range “will be useful to the future astronomy community in many ways, from studying the dusty disk surrounding the bright center of an active galaxy to finding a planet orbiting a bright star,” Mansi Kasliwal, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology on the Early Release Science Team, said in the same statement.
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