Ring Nebula in a new image captured by Webb like never before

Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson
Credit image: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson

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Article by: Andacs Robert Eugen, on 21 August 2023, at 9:48 am PDT

The James Webb Space Telescope has given us an incredible look at the Ring Nebula, a stunning cosmic sight created as a star sheds its outer layers near the end of its life cycle, resulting in a prototypical planetary nebula. This celestial wonder, also known as M57 and NGC 6720, is 2,500 light-years away from our cosmic neighborhood.

The telescope's advanced technology lets us see the nebula in unparalleled spatial resolution and spectral sensitivity in both infrared domains. The Near-InfraRed Camera (NIRCam) provides an exquisite image of the inner ring's filament structure. At the same time, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) reveals specific details within the concentric features of the outer regions.

The nebula contains about 20,000 dense globules rich in molecular hydrogen near the inner region's fiery, incandescent gas. The central shell has a delicate ring of augmented emissions produced by carbon-based molecules, such as the mysterious polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Outside the principal ring, approximately ten concentric arcs are likely to result from the interplay between the central star and a small companion located at a distance similar to that between Earth and Pluto. Nebulae like the Ring Nebula give astronomers insight into the secrets of the stars that create them.

This stunning cosmic feature resembles a distorted doughnut, which we can see almost directly down one of its polar axes. The view shows a brilliantly hued barrel of matter stretching into the distance. While the core appears empty, it's filled with lower-density points that extend both towards and away from us. This gives the nebula the appearance of a rugby ball nestled within the central cavity of the doughnut.

At the center of the Ring Nebula lies the stunning main ring, decorated with vibrant colors and composed of gas expelled by a dying star. This star is heading toward its ultimate fate as a white dwarf. This compact and incredibly hot celestial entity marks the final stage of evolution for stars like our Sun.

The Ring Nebula has a rich history, discovered in 1779 by astronomers Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix and Charles Messier while tracking the trajectory of a comet through the Lyra constellation. Their encounter with this celestial beauty led to its inclusion in the Messier Catalogue.

The James Webb Space Telescope's observing mission, designated GO 1558, provided new insights into the Ring Nebula. One can delve into NASA's latest Webb blog for a more comprehensive understanding of these findings.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope previously captured an image of the Ring Nebula in 2013, which has since become iconic. While it appears elliptical from our Earth-bound view, ground-based data combined with Hubble's vigilant gaze has revealed its proper shape – a distorted doughnut. This collaborative research has allowed astronomers to study the nebula's structure, evolution, physical properties, and dynamic motion, elevating our understanding of this cosmic treasure.

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