The latest images reveal previously unknown features of the planetary nebula and provide insights into the structures within it.
The powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has released a new image of the well-known Ring Nebula with unprecedented spatial resolution.
The Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula in the northern constellation of Lyra. It’s formed by a star throwing off its outer layers as it runs out of fuel. It is relatively close to Earth at roughly 2,500 lightyears away, making it an important object for scientists.
The new images show the intricate details of the filament structure of the inner ring and the concentric features of the outer regions of the nebulae’s ring. For context, it is the equivalent of distinguishing the details of a soccer ball at a distance of 550km.
The images also provide insight on what the structures comprise and how they evolved. The images show approximately 20,000 dense globules in the nebula, which are rich in molecular hydrogen. In contrast, the inner region shows very hot gas.
Approximately 10 concentric arcs are located just beyond the outer edge of the main ring. The arcs are thought to originate from the interaction of the central star with a low-mass companion orbiting at a distance comparable to that between the Earth and the dwarf planet Pluto. In this way, nebulae reveal a kind of astronomical archaeology, as astronomers study the nebula to learn about the star that created it.
The colourful main ring is composed of gas thrown off by the dying star at the centre of the nebula. This star is on its way to becoming a white dwarf – a very small, dense, hot body that is the final evolutionary stage for a star like the sun.
The observations were released today (21 August) by an international team of scientists, including Maynooth University’s Dr Patrick Kavanagh.
Kavanagh led the data reduction and processing of the image taken by the telescope’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI), a camera and a spectrograph that sees light in the mid-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, with wavelengths that are longer than our eyes can see.
He said there has never been mid-infrared images of the Ring Nebula like this before. “The exquisite detail reveals previously unknown features in the molecular halo that tell us this dying star’s nebula was likely shaped by an unseen companion star,” he said. “There simply has not been a telescope capable of seeing these features until JWST.”
These are the latest in a series of stunningly detailed images released by the James Webb Space Telescope.
At the beginning of 2023, the telescope found its first exoplanet and a few months later, it spotted a star about to go supernova. One of its most recent observations was smoke molecules in a distant galaxy, the first time such molecules have been spotted so far away.
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.