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Scientists reveal the Ring Nebula as it has never been seen before

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has managed to record enchanting new images of the incredible Ring Nebula. 

Just released today, the striking images highlight the nebula’s delicate and intricate design, offering both scientists and the public an unparalleled glimpse into this celestial marvel.

Ring Nebula 

The Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57 or M57, is a planetary nebula located approximately 2,300 light years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. 

Despite being called planetary nebulae, these glowing remnants are not actually related to planets at all. They are shells of gas and dust expelled by stars in the later stages of their evolution.

Fate of our own Sun

The Ring Nebula, visible through a small telescope, is popular among amateur astronomers due to its distinctive, ring-like shape, which inspired its name. This “ring” is a glowing shell of ionized gas pushed out by the dying central star, which is now a white dwarf. The nebula is illuminated by the intense ultraviolet radiation from this central star.

The Ring Nebula’s vibrant colors and complex structure make it an excellent subject for scientific study, and it serves as a window into the fate of our own Sun, which will undergo a similar transformation in a few billion years.

Focus of the study

The latest contribution to our understanding of the Ring Nebula is thanks to the work of an international team of astronomers led by Dr. Mike Barlow from UCL, Dr. Nick Cox from ACRI-ST, and Professor Albert Zijlstra from The University of Manchester. 

The team’s mesmerizing imagery, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, has provided a unique opportunity to delve into the intricate processes that have shaped this cosmic phenomenon.

Professor Zijlstra expressed awe at the level of detail observable in the images, stating, “We are amazed by the details in the images, better than we have ever seen before. We always knew planetary nebulae were pretty. What we see now is spectacular.”

The breathtaking array of shapes and patterns that characterize these planetary nebulae – often including ethereal, glowing rings, expanding bubbles, and complex, wispy clouds – are the result of a diverse range of physical processes that are not yet fully understood.

Extraordinary details

Dr. Barlow, the lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Project, shared his insights: “The James Webb Space Telescope has provided us with an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we’ve never seen before. The high-resolution images not only showcase the intricate details of the nebula’s expanding shell but also reveal the inner region around the central white dwarf in exquisite clarity.”

“We are witnessing the final chapters of a star’s life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future so to speak, and JWST’s observations have opened a new window into understanding these awe-inspiring cosmic events. We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve.”

Brand new insights

By observing the hot central star’s illumination of these expelled layers, the scientists can gain a better understanding of the life cycle of stars. Each unique chemical element within the nebula emits light of a specific colour, not unlike a celestial fireworks display, resulting in an exquisite, multicoloured spectacle. This allows astronomers to study the chemical evolution of these objects in intricate detail.

“These images hold more than just aesthetic appeal; they provide a wealth of scientific insights into the processes of stellar evolution,” said Dr. Cox. “By studying the Ring Nebula with JWST, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the life cycles of stars and the elements they release into the cosmos.”

More about the Ring Nebula 

In the case of the Ring Nebula, the original star is believed to have begun shedding its outer layers about 20,000 years ago. What we see now is a thick, donut-shaped ring of glowing gas approximately one light-year across. At the center of the nebula is a tiny but very hot white dwarf, which is the remnant of the original star’s core.

The nebula’s color variations result from the presence of different gases, with blue or blue-green regions indicating the presence of doubly ionized oxygen and red regions indicating the presence of hydrogen and nitrogen.

Image Credit: The University of Manchester


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