Webb Space Telescope
Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope offers a mesmerizing look at the Ring Nebula

Approximately 2,200 light-years from where you’re sitting lie the Cheerio-shaped remains of a dying star — remnants that form a structure famously known as the Ring Nebula. And on Monday (Aug. 21), scientists announced the James Webb Space Telescope has struck gold once again, earning a rather beautiful new view on this iconic cosmic halo.

“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,” Roger Wesson of Cardiff University said in a statement.

Not to be confused with one of the JWST’s very first images, the Southern Ring Nebula, the Ring Nebula (also known as Messier 57) is considered one of the greatest examples of a planetary nebula we have so far. One might argue, however, that “planetary nebula” is a bit of a misleading term for this light-year-wide spectacle. It has nothing to do with planets, really. Planetary nebulas are basically regions of cosmic gas and dust formed from the outer shells of dying stars, in this case a quite spherical and sun-like one.

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In this new image, we’re gazing almost directly down one of the structure’s poles, the agency explained, and the brightly colored barrel of material is pointed away from it. Keep in mind that, in reality, this scene is in three dimensions. So at the center of this nebula, which ESA likens to a “distorted doughnut,” there’s a ton of lower density material packed within. That stuff is also pointed away from us.

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In the middle of the whole structure lies a star on its way to its ultimate fate. It will soon become a white dwarf, also known as a corpse star. White dwarfs get that grim name because they represent the final stage of stellar evolution.

Webb Space Telescope

While this stellar death process is happening, the dying star sort of seems to be ejecting its outer shells of gas, which is what’s causing the vibrant “ring” part of the Ring Nebula seen in the new JWST image.

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With its state-of-the-art army of infrared sensors, the JWST managed to obtain images that provide “unprecedented spatial resolution and spectral sensitivity” regarding all that cosmic chaos, according to ESA’s statement. What this means is the spaceborne telescope, which sits about a million miles (1.6 million km) from Earth, was able to reveal details about the Ring Nebula’s intricate structure that scientists simply haven’t parsed before.

For instance, by capturing infrared light wavelengths emitted by the nebula, otherwise known as light wavelengths invisible to the human eye, the JWST unveiled information about the inner ring’s filament structure as well as approximately ten concentric “arcs” in outer regions of the phenomenon. Those target-shaped features actually came as a surprise.

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“These arcs must have formed about every 280 years as the central star was shedding its outer layers,” Wesson said. “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, 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.”

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“As the dying star was throwing off its atmosphere, the companion star shaped the outflow and sculpted it,” Wesson offered as an explanation, highlighting that “no previous telescope had the sensitivity and the spatial resolution to uncover this subtle effect.”

Webb Space Telescope

With the JWST, the team was able to notice some “curious spikes” pointing directly away from the central star within the ring. These so-called spikes were apparently only faintly visible in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. “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,” Wesson said.

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To get into some more technical aspects of the findings, Wesson explains that the team identified a narrow band of emission coming from some molecules within the ring known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. PAHs are basically carbon-bearing molecules, but importantly for these new JWST results, they were not expected to form within the nebula studied.

About the author

Naqvi Syed

Naqvi Syed is is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including Spacepsychiatrist. He tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. He works with Spacepsychiatrist from a long time.

Link: https://spacepsychiatrist.com/

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