There is a lot of dust in the universe compared to what our calculations predict.
This major problem for astronomy, called the “dust budget crisis,” must be solved to better predict the crucial role of dust in protecting stars, giving birth to planets, and sustaining the key molecules for life as we know it.
Researchers hope to finally resolve the dust issue using the James Webb Space Telescope, which will end its first month of operation on July 12 with the release of its first operational images. Once Webb is ready, among its suite of early-stage observations will be dust-producing Wolf-Rayet binaries to get a better look at the dust’s origin story.
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Webb will be better positioned than many other observatories to capture this elusive complex. With infrared light, it can see through clouds of dust, and because of its orbit in deep space, it is far from interfering light sources that could throw off any calculations about dust abundance.
Webb’s target selection is also key in navigating the dusty mystery. Wolf-Rayet stars, which are extremely hot and bright, can be large producers of dust as they interact with companion stars in binary systems.
Astronomers usually spot these stellar interactions through pinwheel patterns, created when two stars orbit each other and winds blowing from the surfaces of these stars collide in space. However, because Wolf-Rayet stars are so bright, their brightness overwhelms the fainter emission of nearby dust.
Webb’s specialized optics, however, will provide unprecedented infrared views. Additionally, Webb has a higher resolution than NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope, which also observed from space in the infrared.
Long infrared wavelengths of light are not only prized for their ability to see through dust, but they can also provide spectra of elements in dust clouds. Some of these chemicals may be essential to the building blocks of life, allowing us to hint at how dust spreads organic molecules across the universe.
“The mid-infrared light that Webb can detect is exactly the wavelength of light 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. Air (JAXA). a 2020 statement (opens in new tab) by the Webb Consortium.
Lau’s team will examine two Wolf-Rayet binary systems using two instruments on Webb: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS).
Under scrutiny will be WR 140, a well-studied star system that will serve as a baseline to make sure Webb’s observations are working as expected. Also on the list is WR 137, whose two stars will approach each other closely at the start of Webb’s mission in a possible dust-generating event.
Lau’s probe will be one of a series of early launch science observations conducted by Webb during the telescope’s first five months of normal operation. Beyond serving as a probe into our dusty origin story, the Wolf-Rayet observations will also help Webb astronomers test Webb’s dynamic range, or the difference between the brightest and faintest objects that can observe.
Learning the range “will be useful to the astronomy community in many ways in the future, for example, in studying the dusty disk surrounding the bright center of an active galaxy, or in finding a planet orbiting a star bright,” Mansi Kasliwal, an astronomer. at the California Institute of Technology in the early release science team, said in the same statement.