This stunning image captures the final stages of a distant star’s life and offers a glimpse of what will happen to our own sun in about 5 billion years.
It was taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and reveals new features of the spectacular donut-like structure of glowing gas known as the Ring Nebula.
Also known as Messier 57, the fascinating object is about 2,600 light-years from Earth and was born of a dying star that ejected its outer layers into space.
It is this expulsion of stellar material that gives the cosmic masterpiece its distinctive structure and vibrant colors.
A similar image captured by Webb was made public earlier this month, but the new one taken with a different camera at the $10bn (£7.4bn) observatory has revealed details never before seen in the outer regions of the ring.
Beautiful: This stunning image captures the final stages of a distant star’s life and offers a glimpse of what will happen to our own sun in about 5 billion years. It was captured by the MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
A similar image captured by Webb was made public earlier this month (pictured), but a new one taken with a different camera at the $10bn (£7.4bn) observatory has revealed never-before-seen details. in the outer regions of the ring.
WHAT IS THE RING NEBULA?
Messier 57, or the Ring Nebula, is one of the most iconic and beautiful planetary nebulae known to astronomy.
It is very popular with astrophotographers on Earth because it is angled favorably from our perspective, meaning it can be captured with only a small telescope.
The nebula lies south of the bright star Vega, which forms the famous Summer Triangle asterism.
It was discovered by the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix in January 1779.
‘This striking image from James Webb’s MIRI reveals new details that we were unable to observe with NIRCam, particularly the arcs beyond the main ring,” said Professor Mike Barlow of University College London, Principal Scientist for the JWST Ring Nebula Project.
These formed in the red giant phase of the central star, before it shed most of its material to become today’s hot white dwarf star.
“Our team’s initial analysis suggests that a low-mass companion star with an eccentric orbit triggered a further release of material from the dying star as it passed by every 280 years, creating these arcs.”
Together, Webb’s images reveal the intricate structures of the Ring Nebula, its rings, bubbles and wispy clouds, in unprecedented detail.
The main ring of the nebula is made up of 20,000 clumps of dense molecular hydrogen gas, each the mass of Earth.
But just beyond this outer edge of the main ring, Webb’s MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) image has revealed for the first time that there are about 10 concentric arcs.
Astronomers say these must have formed around every 280 years or so.
However, no known process involved in the evolution of a star into a nebula has that kind of time period, so the arcs are thought to have formed from the interaction of the dying red giant with a companion star located at the same distance as her. Pluto is from our own sun.
Dr Roger Wesson, from Cardiff University, said: “Our MIRI images provided us with the sharpest and clearest view yet of the faint molecular halo outside the bright ring.”
‘A startling revelation was the presence of up to ten regularly spaced concentric features within this faint halo. No previous telescope had the sensitivity and spatial resolution to detect this subtle effect.’
Analysis: Together, Webb’s NIRCam (left) and MIRI (right) images reveal the intricate structures of the Ring Nebula—its rings, bubbles, and wispy clouds—in unprecedented detail
By analyzing the different images of the Ring Nebula, the researchers hope to better understand the complex processes behind the formation and evolution of objects like this.
Located in the constellation Lyra, Messier 57 is popular with stargazers because even a small telescope will reveal its donut-shaped glowing gas structure that gave it its name.
What makes planetary nebulae so captivating is their variety of shapes and patterns. These often include delicate, glowing rings, expanding bubbles, or wispy, intricate clouds.
Like fireworks, the different chemical elements in the nebula emit light of specific colors.
This then results in exquisite and colorful objects, allowing astronomers to study the chemical evolution of these objects in detail.
Within five billion years, scientists believe our sun will have become a red giant star, more than 100 times larger than its current size.
Wow: This stunning image of the iconic Ring Nebula offers a glimpse of what our sun might look like when it dies. It was also taken by Webb’s NIRCam instrument.
Eventually, it will expel gas and dust to create an ‘envelope’ that makes up up to half its mass.
The core will become a tiny white dwarf star that will shine for thousands of years, illuminating the envelope to create a ring-shaped planetary nebula like the Ring Nebula above.
This will likely destroy any life on our planet, but it is not known whether Earth’s rocky core will survive.
Webb launched from the Guiana Space Center on Christmas Day 2021 with the goal of looking back in time to the dawn of the universe.
Astronomers hope that the observatory can reveal what happened just a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang.
The observatory is set to spend more than a decade in an area of balanced gravity between the sun and Earth called L2.
While you’re there, you’ll explore the universe in the infrared spectrum so you can peer through the clouds of gas and dust where stars are born.
Captivating: The Ring Nebula has previously been captured in all its beauty by the iconic Hubble Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the first stars and galaxies.
The James Webb Telescope has been described as a ‘time machine’ that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to observe the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The big telescope, which has already cost more than $7bn (£5bn), is seen as a successor to the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.
The James Webb Telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin, about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
It is the largest and most powerful orbiting space telescope in the world, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, since the two will be working in tandem for a while.
The Hubble Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the Space Shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It circles the Earth at a speed of approximately 17,000 mph (27,300 kph) in a low Earth orbit at approximately 340 mile altitude.