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The James Webb Space Telescope has revealed new, color images of the famous Ring Nebula.
The new images capture the intricate details of a planetary nebula, an enormous cloud of gas and cosmic dust that is home to the remains of a dying star.
The two images were taken at different wavelengths of infrared, which are invisible to the human eye, using the space observatory’s instruments. Webb previously captured a different view of the Ring Nebula, as well as the similar Southern Ring Nebula.
A longtime favorite of astronomers, the Ring Nebula has been studied for many years because of its observability and the insight it can provide into the lives of stars. It is located in the constellation of Lyra, more than 2,000 light-years from Earth, but on clear summer evenings, skywatchers can see it with binoculars.
Planetary nebulae, which have nothing to do with planets despite their name, usually have a circular structure and are so named because they initially resembled the disks from which planets form when one was first discovered by French astronomer Charles Messier in 1764.
The Ring Nebula was discovered by Messier and the astronomer Darquier de Bilibois in 1779.
Some nebulae are stellar nurseries where stars are born. The Ring Nebula was created when a dying star, called a white dwarf, began shedding its outer layers in space, creating glowing rings and expanding clouds of gas.
“As a final farewell, this hot core ionizes or heats up this expelled gas, and the nebula responds with a colorful emission of light,” Roger Wesson, an astronomer at Cardiff University, wrote in an article. NASA blog post About Webb’s latest observations of the Ring Nebula. “It begs the question: How could a spherical star create such complex and delicate non-spherical structures?”
Called ESSENcE, which stands for Evolving Stars and Their Nebulae in the Age of the James Webb Space Telescope, Wesson and his team used their near-infrared webcam and medium-infrared instrument to capture unprecedented detail that could help them understand more about how planetary nebulae evolve over time. . .
“The nebula’s bright, circular structure is composed of approximately 20,000 individual clumps of dense molecular hydrogen gas, each roughly equivalent to Earth’s mass,” Wesson wrote. Outside the ring are prominent spiky features pointing away from the dying star, which glow in infrared light but were only faintly visible in previous Hubble Space Telescope images.
The team believes these spikes are caused by particles forming in the ring’s dense shadows.
Images taken with the Medium Infrared Instrument, also called MIRI, provided a sharp, clear view of the faint halo outside the ring.
“The surprising discovery was that there were as many as ten concentric features spaced regularly within this faint halo,” Wesson wrote.
Initially, the team thought the observed arcs formed as the central star shed its outer layers over time. But thanks to Webb’s sensitivity, scientists now believe that something else may be responsible for the arcs within the corona.
“When a single star develops into a planetary nebula, no process that we know of has this kind of time period,” Wesson wrote. Instead, these rings indicate that there must be a companion star in the system, orbiting farther from the central star as Pluto does from our sun. As the dying star shed its atmosphere, the companion star shaped and sculpted the outflow.
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