Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a supernova that has been observed officially since the 1940s — though some historians think it may have been observed as far back as the 1600s.
Yet after decades, or even centuries, of observations, researchers are using new technology and techniques to make discoveries about “one of the most well-studied objects in the Milky Way,” according to a release from the Space Telescope Science Institute on Sunday.
Researchers used the James Webb Space Telescope — which is operated out of the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus — to look at Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, with a near-infrared camera.
The new image produced using the Webb telescope shows the expanding shell of the exploding star colliding with gases it shed before going supernova. One researcher described the scene of the dying star to leaving “tiny shards of glass behind.”
“It’s really unbelievable after all these years studying Cas A to now resolve those details, which are providing us with transformational insight into how this star exploded,” said Danny Milisavljevic of Purdue University, who leads the research team.
Using this image, along with an observation of Cas A from earlier in the year, researchers are able to explore the origins of cosmic dust — clouds of heavy elements, like calcium, that are vital for life.
Getting detailed images of Cas A allows researchers to better understand how much cosmic dust leaves a star as it goes supernova.
If you look at the image, and maybe squint just a little bit, you might think it looks like a classic Christmas tree ornament. You wouldn’t be the only one.
The Space Telescope Science Institute said Cas A gleams like an ornament waiting to be placed “in the perfect spot on a holiday tree.” In a shared Instagram post on Sunday, NASA and First Lady Jill Biden described the image as “a gift from a past star.”
“It is our hope that this breathtaking image and stunning science inspires a bit of magic, wonder, and joy for anyone who takes a moment to look up at our shared starry-night sky,” they said.
The image was used as part of the White House Holiday Display. The theme this year, “Magic, Wonder, and Joy” is meant to emulate how children experience the holidays, according to the White House website.
“In this season of reflection and goodwill, we hope you will embrace your inner child and delight in simply being present with those you love,” the first lady and President Joe Biden wrote in a welcome letter to the White House holiday celebration.