NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has begun to study 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 closely observed at various wavelengths for nearly 40 years since its discovery in February of 1987. Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) captured a detailed image of SN 1987A, showing a keyhole shape at its center, crescents just to its left and right, an equatorial ring with bright hot spots, diffuse emission and two faint outer rings. Using various colors to represent wavelengths from 1.5 to 4.44 microns (F150W, F164N, F200W, F323N, F405N and F444W), the image provides a crucial clue to understanding how a supernova develops over time to shape its remnant. The study of SN 1987A will hopefully help unlock new mysteries of supernovae and the universe as a whole.
SN 1987A’s (Supernova 1987A) remarkable image reveals a central structure that resembles a keyhole.This central structure is packed with clumpy gas and dust that was ejected from the supernova explosion, which is so dense that even near-infrared light detected by the Webb telescope can’t penetrate it, resulting in the dark “hole” in the keyhole. Surrounding this inner keyhole is a bright equatorial ring, which was formed from material that was ejected tens of thousands of years before the supernova explosion. This equatorial ring also contains bright hot spots, which appeared as the shock wave from the supernova hit this ring. Additionally, there are spots found even outside of this equatorial ring, with diffuse emission surrounding it. These spots are locations where the supernova shock has hit even more exterior material.
The Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, as well as the Chandra X-ray Observatory, have all observed various structures of the supernova remnant, but the Webb Telescope revealed a new feature: small crescent-like structures. These crescents are thought to be part of the outer layers of gas that were shot out from the supernova explosion. The brightness is believed to be a result of limb brightening, which occurs when you view the expanding material in three dimensions; it appears as if there is more material in the crescents than there actually may be. Furthermore, the unprecedented sensitivity and spatial resolution of Webb has enabled researchers to observe this supernova remnant with incredible detail and clarity, something that was never possible before with the retired Spitzer telescope.
The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) of Webb recently captured an image of SN 1987A (Supernova 1987A) which has been annotated to highlight key structures. At the center of the image, there is a keyhole shape made of material ejected from the supernova. To the left and right of the keyhole are some faint crescents which were recently discovered by Webb. Beyond them there is an equatorial ring that consists of bright hot spots that were ejected thousands of years before the supernova explosion. In this image, blue represents light at 1.5 microns (F150W), cyan for 1.64 and 2.0 microns (F164N, F200W), yellow for 3.23 microns (F323N), orange for 4.05 microns (F405N) and red for 4.44 microns (F444W). Additionally, there is a diffuse emission and two faint outer rings present in the image.
Despite the decades of study since initial discovery, many mysteries still remain surrounding the Supernova 1987A, particularly the neutron star that should have been formed in its wake. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to use its NIRSpec and MIRI instruments to capture new, high-fidelity infrared data over time and gain new insights into the newly identified crescent structures. In addition, the JWST will collaborate with Hubble, Chandra, and other observatories to provide further unique insights into the past and future of this legendary supernova.