James Webb Space Telescope Unearths Record-Breaking Farthest Star Explosion, Reinforcing its Status as a Supernova Detection Powerhouse


The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has detected 80 new early supernovas, including the earliest and furthest supernova ever observed. The data for these discoveries was collected from the JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey (JADES) program. Prior to the launch of JWST in 2022, only a few supernovas had been found dating back to when the universe was about 25% of its current age, approximately 3.3 billion years old. However, the JWST has found many supernovas that exploded when the universe was less than 2 billion years old.

The JWST’s phenomenal sensitivity to infrared light has greatly contributed to these discoveries. Light wavelengths that have traveled through the cosmos over long periods undergo a phenomenon known as “redshift”, where the wavelengths stretch out due to the expansion of the universe. This causes light to move from the bluish side of the electromagnetic spectrum towards the reddish side, shifting the light into the infrared region. The JWST is highly proficient at observing the universe in this region of the spectrum.

The Hubble Space Telescope had previously allowed astronomers to observe distant supernovas when the universe was in its “young adult” phase. The JWST, however, enables observation of supernovas when the universe was in its “teens” or even “pre-teens”.

The ability to observe these ancient supernovas provides valuable insights into the early universe. For instance, the universe at that time was mostly composed of hydrogen and helium. Hence, the supernovas observed from this era provide an opportunity to study stars that contain fewer heavy chemical elements or “metals” compared to the current generation of “metal-rich” stars like the sun. This can potentially enhance our understanding of how stars are enriched by metals during their formation process.

Moreover, not all supernovas observed by the JADES team were triggered by massive stars running out of fuel. Some were Type Ia supernovas, which are triggered when “white dwarfs” feed on material from a companion star, leading to a thermonuclear explosion. These supernovas have uniform light outputs, and thus can be used to measure cosmic distances and the rate of space expansion.

The team’s observations indicated that the brightness of a Type Ia supernova that exploded around 11 billion years ago was consistent, despite its light undergoing cosmological redshift. This consistent brightness makes Type Ia supernovas reliable cosmic distance markers.

The findings were presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. The team plans to continue their observations with the hope of looking back to the “toddler” phase of the universe or even its infancy, and potentially uncover the deaths of the first generation of massive stars.



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