James Webb Telescope Captures the Glowing Ring Nebula in Magnificent Detail

The colorful ring, located some 2,600 light-years away from Earth, is made from the remnants of a dying star

An image of the ring nebula, with a large green center, a purple outer ring, and wisps of purple beyond that. Stars and other galaxies glow yellow in the background.
An image of the Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope. The interior of the ring is filled with hot gas and the ring itself is a complex structure made up of thousands of dense clumps of hydrogen gas. NASA, ESA, CSA, JWST Ring Nebula Team photo; image processing by Roger Wesson

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has captured exquisite new images of the Ring Nebula, a glowing orb of material strewn about the cosmos by a dying star some 4,000 years ago.

Humans have been imaging the expelled remnants of the star for nearly 150 years. But the new views from Webb show the Ring Nebula in greater detail, revealing structures that no other telescope has been able to detect.

“I first saw the Ring Nebula as a kid through just a small telescope,” Jan Cami, an astrophysicist at Western University in Canada who works on Webb’s Ring Nebula Imaging Project, says in a statement. “I would never have thought that one day, I would be part of the team that would use the most powerful space telescope ever built to look at this object.”

The Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula, or a collection of gas and dust made from the ejected outer layers of a dying star, according to the European Space Agency.

Over the course of billions of years, stars burn hydrogen to create energy through fusion, gradually exhausting their supply of the gas. When smaller stars, or those up to eight times the size of our sun, run out of hydrogen, they collapse in on themselves, ejecting their outer layers and leaving behind an ultra-dense and hot core called a white dwarf, per National Geographic.

The French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix discovered the Ring Nebula in 1779, according to NASA. It’s located roughly 2,600 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Lyra, a harp-shaped group of stars that can be best observed in the night sky in August.

Then, about a decade ago, the Hubble Telescope captured a detailed image of the Ring Nebula. It revealed a football-shaped gaseous structure at the center, the ends of which stick out of the outer ring. This image began to shift astronomers’ perspective on cosmic objects like this one.

“Planetary nebulae were once thought of as very simple objects, roughly spherical and with a single star at their center,” Roger Wesson, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales who worked on the analysis of the new image, says in a statement. “Hubble showed that they were much more complicated than that, and with these latest images, JWST is revealing yet more intricate detail in these objects.”

The new image highlights even more details of the Ring Nebula, showing that its gas is not in a uniform cloud. Instead, the nebula contains complex structures, including clumps, arcs, spikes and wisps of gas. The image shows the white dwarf—which during its heyday was likely similar to our sun—as a pinprick of light at the nebula’s center.

Radiation from the white dwarf illuminates the nebula, and the different elements in the structure emit different colors. Helium gas, for example, glows at the center of the nebula, and the purple clumps in the ring are hydrogen gas.

“Beyond the morphological treasure trove, there is also much information on the chemical makeup of the gas and dust in these observations,” Els Peeters, an astrophysicist at Western University who works on the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project, says in the statement. “We even found large carbonaceous molecules in this object, and we have no clear idea how they got there, yet.”

The researchers hope to use Webb’s imaging capabilities to learn more about these dramatic but awe-inspiring ends to stars’ lives, a fate that awaits our own sun billions of years in the future.

“We don’t yet fully understand all the processes that take place during this caterpillar-to-butterfly-like phase,” Mike Barlow, an astrophysicist at University College of London who co-leads the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project, tells the Guardian’s Ian Sample. “The Ring Nebula in Lyra is one of the closest and brightest of these planetary nebulae and is therefore an ideal target for JWST to study the small-scale and large-scale processes that work to form the dusty molecular structures that we see in these images.”

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