Webb captures detailed beauty of Ring Nebula | Behold

The new images provide unprecedented spatial resolution and spectral sensitivity, which also reveal unique details across both infrared observations. For example, the new image from NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) shows the intricate details of the filament structure of the inner ring, while the new image from MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) reveals particular details in the concentric features in the outer regions of the nebulae’s ring.

There are some 20,000 dense globules in the nebula, which are rich in molecular hydrogen. In contrast, the inner region shows very hot gas. The main shell contains a thin ring of enhanced emission from carbon-based molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Roughly ten 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 like the Ring Nebula reveal a kind of astronomical archaeology, as astronomers study the nebula to learn about the star that created it.

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has observed the well-known Ring Nebula with unprecedented detail. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson

The nebula is shaped like a distorted doughnut. We are gazing almost directly down one of the poles of this structure, with a brightly coloured barrel of material stretching away from us. Although the centre of this doughnut may look empty, it is actually full of lower density material that stretches both towards and away from us, creating a shape similar to a rugby ball slotted into the doughnut’s central gap.

The colourful main ring is composed of gas thrown off by a dying star at the centre of the nebula. This star is on its way to becoming a white dwarf — a very small, dense, and hot body that is the final evolutionary stage for a star like the Sun.

The Ring Nebula is one of the most notable objects in our skies. It was discovered in 1779 by astronomers Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix and Charles Messier, and was added to the Messier Catalogue. Both astronomers stumbled upon the nebula when trying to follow the path of a comet through the constellation of Lyra, passing very close to the Ring Nebula.

These observations were completed as part of the James Webb Space Telescope observing programme GO 1558. To learn more about the team’s research of these new observations, see the latest NASA Webb blog here.

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