Baffling ‘spiderweb’ star is a nesting binary – not an alien megastructure

Puzzling image from the James Webb Space Telescope explained in two new studies

Image of WR140 binary taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope with the puzzling concentric rings

A bizarre image of the distant star known as WR140 surrounded by concentric geometric ripples,  captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in July, has baffled astronomers worldwide – even triggering frenzied internet speculation that it might be evidence of an alien megastructure light-years across. 

The puzzling image was captured shortly after JWST started science operations and released its first full batch of images. It quickly provoked spirited discussion online, with the wild corners of  the internet theorising the giant ripples might have alien origins. Mark McCaughrean, a senior  adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency and a member of the James  Webb Space Telescope Science Working Group, described the image as “bonkers”.

But in two companion papers, both published today in Nature and Nature Astronomy, two  Australian astronomers explain that the 17 concentric rings seen girdling the star are actually a series of mammoth dust shells created by the cyclic interaction between a pair of hot stars, one of them a dying Wolf-Rayet, locked together in a tight orbit. 

“Like clockwork, WR140 puffs out a sculpted smoke ring every eight years, which is then inflated in  the stellar wind like a balloon,” said Professor Peter Tuthill from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney, a co-author in both papers. “Eight years later, as the binary  returns in its orbit, another ring appears, the same as the one before, streaming out into space  inside the bubble of the previous one, like a set of giant nested Russian dolls.” 

The WR140 binary is comprised of a huge Wolf-Rayet star and an even bigger blue supergiant star,  gravitationally bound in an eight-year orbit. And while all stars generate stellar winds, those from  Wolf-Rayet stars can be more likened to a stellar hurricane. Elements such as carbon in the wind condense out as soot, which remains hot enough to glow bright in the infrared. Like smoke  captured by wind, the dust clouds give telescopes something to observe, following the flow. 

Because the two stars are in elliptical rather than circular orbits, dust production turns on and off  as WR140’s binary companion nears and then departs the point of closest approach. Based on  data collected with other telescopes since 2006, Professor Tuthill and his former student Yinuo  Han– now at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy – created a three-dimensional  model of the dust plume’s geometry. 

That model, created for the Nature paper of which Han is the lead author, turned out to perfectly explain the bizarre results obtained by the JWST in July. Thanks to this and other contributions, both Han and Professor Tuthill also became co-authors of the Nature Astronomy paper with the  new Webb data.

Raw 3D model (left) and processed (right) of WR140 shells after 18 orbits (or 144 years) of cyclic dust formation

What’s more, in their Nature paper, Han and Professor Tuthill showed – for the first time – direct  evidence of intense starlight driving into matter and accelerating it, after tracking titanic plumes of  dust generated by the violent interactions between two colossal stars over 16 years. 

It’s known that starlight carries momentum, exerting a push on matter known as ‘radiation  pressure’. Astronomers often see the aftermath of this in the form of matter coasting at high speed around the cosmos, but have never caught the process in the act. Direct observation of  acceleration due to forces other than gravity is rarely witnessed, and never in a stellar environment like this.  

“It's hard to see starlight causing acceleration because the force fades with distance, and other  forces quickly take over,” said Han. “To witness acceleration at the level that it becomes  measurable, the material needs to be reasonably close to the star or the source of the radiation  pressure needs to be extra strong. WR140 is a binary star whose ferocious radiation field  supercharges these effects, placing them within reach of our high-precision data.” 

Using imaging technology known as interferometry, which was able to act like a zoom lens for the  10-metre mirror of the Keck telescope in Hawaii, the Australians were able to recover sufficiently  sharp images of WR140 for the study. 

LEFT: Illustration of the WR140 binary with concentric dust rings emanating from their interaction [Credit: Amanda Smith/IoA/ University of Cambridge]. RIGHT: Relative size of the Wolf-Rayet star, its O-type blue supergiant, and the Sun [Credit: NASA/JPL]

They discovered that the dust does not stream out from the star with the wind forming a hazy ball,  as had been thought. Instead, the dust condenses adjacent to where the winds from the two stars  collide, on the surface of a cone-shaped shock front between them. Because the orbiting binary  star is in constant motion, the shock front also rotates. The sooty plume gets wrapped into a  spiral, in the same way that droplets form a spiral in a garden sprinkler. 

“In the absence of external forces, each dust spiral should expand at a constant speed,” said Han.  “We were puzzled at first because we could not get our model to fit the observations until we  finally realised that we were seeing something new. The data did not fit because the expansion  speed wasn’t constant, but rather that it was accelerating. We’d caught that for the first time on  camera.” 

Once they added the acceleration of dust by starlight into their three-dimensional model of the  WR140 binary, it explained their observational data perfectly. And also ended up explaining the  strange concentric rings later spotted with JWST.  

“In one sense, we always knew this must be the reason for the outflow, but I never dreamed we’d  be able to see the physics at work like this,” said Professor Tuthill. “When I look at the data now, I  see WR140’s plume unfurling a like giant sail made of dust. When it catches the photon wind  streaming from the star, like a yacht catching a gust, it makes a sudden leap forward.” 

With JWST now in operation, researchers will be able to learn much more about WR140 and  similar systems. “The Webb telescope offers new extremes of stability and sensitivity,” said Dr Ryan Lau, Assistant Astronomer at the U.S. National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research  

Laboratory and lead author of the JWST study published in Nature Astronomy. “We’ll now be able  to make observations like this much more easily than from the ground, opening a new window  into the world of Wolf-Rayet physics.”



  • Prof Peter Tuthill, Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney | +61 (0)468 899 816 | [email protected]

  • Yinuo Han, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge | +44 (01223) 337 504 | [email protected]

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Published: 13 Oct 2022

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