NASA’s James Webb Captures New Structures Within Iconic Supernova SN 1987A

Scientists recently started using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to study one of the most fascinating supernovae in space. This supernova is named SN 1987A (Supernova 1987A). Scientists discovered that it is located about 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Since astronomers first discovered the supernova in February 1987 which is roughly 40 years ago, it has been a primary target of high observation wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to radio.

How James Webb Revealed the New Structures Within Iconic Supernova SN 1987A

JWST recently conducted new observations on the Supernova using its NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera). Its detailed capture of the Supernova 1987A offered an important clue about how a supernova comes into existence and develops with time to adjust the shape of its remains. 

What You Should Know About The Image

Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) captured this fascinating image of SN 1987A Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, M. Matsuura

The image shows a central structure of the SN 1987A looking like a keyhole. Scientists revealed that this center contains clumpy gas and dust discharged by the supernova explosion. While analyzing the dust, researchers noticed that it is extremely dense and that the sophisticated near-infrared light of the Webb cannot penetrate it.

The dust also shaped the dark hole as a keyhole. A visible equatorial ring surrounds the inner keyhole, thereby creating a band around the waist connecting two slightly visible arms of hourglass-shaped outer rings. The equatorial ring came into existence from materials discharged tens of thousands of years before the supernova explosion. It has bright hot spots that look like a supernova’s shock wave impacted the ring.

While analyzing the image even further, scientists noticed there are spots at the exterior of the ring accompanied by diffuse emission encompassing it. These exact spots are the regions where supernova shocks hit the exterior material with more power. Even though NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and Chandra X-ray Observatory have been observing the structures of SN 1987A by changing degrees, scientists still used Webb’s unparalleled sensitivity and great resolution to show a new unique feature in the supernova remains.

This new feature is a small crescent-like structure and scientists assumed that these structures are part of the outer layers of gas ejected from the supernova explosion. The brightness of the SN 1987A may suggest that the cosmic object has limb brightening, which is an optical occurrence that reveals itself from observing the expanding material in three dimensions.

Next Move To Study SN 1987A

Even though the retired Spitzer space telescope once observed this supernova in infrared, its high resolution cannot match with the clarity and great detail in the latest images captured by the Webb.

Hence, the sophisticated telescope will continue to use its NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) instruments to capture new and highly detailed infrared data to help astronomers learn more about crescent structures. Webb will also partner with Hubble, Chandra, and other telescopic facilities in providing new and improved data on the supernova.


James Webb recently captured new crescent structures of the supernova. However, astronomers will still have more data to clearly understand the real nature of this supernova. In addition, if you have an interest in learning more about the universe, you can check out these best-selling books of all time about the Cosmos.

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