As reported by Inverse, researchers using Webb believe they observed a supernova using the NIRCam tool. They compared Webb’s data to data collected using Hubble and found a bright object that could be a star that just went supernova.
A supernova occurs when a massive star runs out of fuel and is nearing the end of its life. When a star collapses, it throws away much of its matter in a massive explosion that produces large amounts of light. This light is so bright that it can be seen from great distances. Webb observed one such bright flash in the galaxy SDSS.J141930.11 + 5251593. The telescope made two observations of the galaxy five days apart, and on the second observation, the flash was less bright, indicating that it dimmed over time.
“We’ll need more time-series data to make a decision, but the data we have matches that of a supernova, so it’s a very good candidate,” lead author Mike Engesser of the Space Telescope Science Institute told Inverse.
This finding is somewhat surprising, even with Webb’s extreme sensitivity. Since supernovae are transient events, which means they don’t last very long, you should be lucky to notice one when they happen. Although a supernova technically occurred billions of years ago, we only see it now because light takes time to travel to us from the distant galaxy.
Webb wasn’t designed to detect supernovae, but researchers are making the most of the data collected so far and finding surprising uses for them. The advantage of looking at this type of target with Webb is that he will be able to observe the area around the supernova to see its effects and the consequences of such a big bang.
Understanding more about supernovae is important not only for understanding the life cycles of stars, but also for measuring the expansion of the universe. A class of supernovae called Type 1a “mile markers” are used to measure distances because they have constant levels of brightness and can be seen from great distances.