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NASA's Webb telescope offers new look at Ring Nebula

The bright Ring Nebula rests about 2,200 light-years away from Earth and is visible on clear summer evenings in the northern hemisphere.
NASA's Webb telescope offers new look at Ring Nebula
Posted at 10:48 PM, Aug 21, 2023

New images of one of our universe's most enchanting eras for a star have been released by NASA. The space agency's James Webb space telescope helped capture a new look at some of the final chapters for the Ring Nebula. 

The well-known planetary nebula's current stage in its life is created by a star "throwing off" its outer layers, while it runs out of fuel, astronomers say. The Ring Nebula is known as an archetypal planetary nebula.

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One of the first images released by the Webb telescope was of the Southern Ring Nebula which also showed what some of the final stages of a dying star look like.

The nebula's "intricate structures," as NASA described them, almost appear to the eye - and to the imagination - to be an opening, like a portal. What astronomers are actually observing is the next phase in a Sun-like star's stellar lifecycle, NASA says. 

The Ring Nebula sits about 2,200 light-years away from Earth, and is considered bright. It is visible on clear summer evenings in the northern hemisphere.

Thaddeus Cesari of NASA wrote, "When we first saw the images, we were stunned by the amount of detail in them. The bright ring that gives the nebula its name is composed of about 20,000 individual clumps of dense molecular hydrogen gas, each of them about as massive as the Earth." 

"Within the ring, there is a narrow band of emission from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs — complex carbon-bearing molecules that we would not expect to form in the Ring Nebula. Outside the bright ring, we see curious 'spikes' pointing directly away from the central star, which are prominent in the infrared but were only very faintly visible in Hubble Space Telescope images," he wrote. "We think these could be due to molecules that can form in the shadows of the densest parts of the ring, where they are shielded from the direct, intense radiation from the hot central star."

Images from Webb reveal the details of the nebula's concentric features in its outer regions, astronomers say. There are around ten concentric arcs that rest just outside of the nebula's outer edge of its main ring. 

NASA said the images provided astronomers with "the sharpest and clearest view yet of the faint molecular halo outside the bright ring." 

It was called "a surprising revelation...the presence of up to ten regularly-spaced, concentric features within this faint halo." 

Cesari wrote, "These arcs must have formed about every 280 years as the central star was shedding its outer layers. When a single star evolves into a planetary nebula, there is no process that we know of that has that kind of time period." 

"Instead," he wrote, "these rings suggest that there must be a companion star in the system, orbiting about as far away from the central star as Pluto does from our Sun." 

Researchers believe the dying star has been "throwing off" its atmosphere, and believe "the companion star shaped the outflow and sculpted it." 

This is the first time that a telescope has had the sensitivity needed, along with the spatial resolution, to reveal such subtle effects and details.

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