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The James Webb Space Telescope has revealed colorful new images of the iconic Ring Nebula.
The new images capture intricate details of the planetary nebula, an enormous cloud of cosmic gas and dust that contains the remnants of a dying star.
Both images were taken at different wavelengths of infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye, using instruments on board the space lab. Webb previously captured a different perspective on the appearance of the Ring Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula.
A longtime favorite of astronomers, the Ring Nebula has been studied for years because of its observability and the insight it can provide into the lifetime of stars. It is located 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra, but on clear summer evenings, it can be seen by skygazers using binoculars.
Planetary nebulae, despite the name, have nothing to do with the planets, are usually round in shape, and were initially named after the French astronomer Charles Messier discovered one in 1764 because of their resemblance to the planets forming disks.
In 1779 Messier and astronomer Tarquier de Bellepoix discovered the Ring Nebula.
Some nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars are born. The Ring Nebula formed when a dying star, known as a white dwarf, began to eject its outer layers into space, creating glowing rings and expanding clouds of gas.
“As a final farewell, the hot core ionizes, or heats, this ejected gas, and the nebula responds with a colorful emission of light,” wrote astronomer Roger Wesson of Cardiff University. NASA blog post Regarding Webb’s recent observations of the Ring Nebula. “This begs the question: How does a spherical star form such complex and delicate non-spherical structures?”
Wesson and his international team at ESSENcE, which represents stars and their nebulae formed during the JWST epoch, are using Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument to help capture unprecedented detail about how planetary nebulae evolve over time. .
“The nebula’s bright iconic ring system is made up of 20,000 separate clumps of dense molecular hydrogen gas, each about as large as Earth,” Wesson wrote. Outside the ring are prominent spiky features that point away from the dying star, glowing in infrared light but faintly visible in earlier images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The team believes the spikes are from molecules that form in the ring’s dense shadows.
Images taken by the Mid-Infrared Instrument, also known as MIRI, provided a clear, sharp view of a faint halo outside the ring.
“A surprising revelation is the presence of up to ten regularly spaced, concentric features within this faint halo,” Wesson wrote.
Initially, the team thought that the observed curves formed as the central star shed its outer layers over time. But because of the sensitivity of the web, scientists now believe that something else may be responsible for the bends within the halo.
“When a single star turns into a planetary nebula, there is no process that we know of that has that kind of period,” Wesson wrote. “Instead, these rings suggest that the companion star must be in an orbiting system far away from the central star, much like Pluto orbits from our Sun. As the dying star was shedding its atmosphere, the companion star shaped and carved the exit path.