A new image from the James Webb Space Telescope shows the stunning and distinctive Ring Nebula — a gorgeous structure of dust and gas located in the constellation of Lyra. This nebula is a favorite among sky watchers as it faces toward Earth so we can see its beautiful structure, and because it is visible throughout the summer from the Northern Hemisphere. It is different from the Southern Ring nebula, which Webb has also imaged, but both are a type of object called a planetary nebula.
Located just 2,600 light-years away, the Ring Nebula is a structure of dust and gas that was first observed in the 1770s, when it was thought to be something like a planet. With advances in technology, astronomers realized it was not a planet, but rather a cloud of dust and gas, and thanks to highly detailed observations by space telescopes like Hubble and Webb, scientists have been able to see more of its complex structure. The nebula isn’t a simple sphere or blob, but is rather a central, football-shaped structure surrounded by rings of different material.
This image was taken using Webb’s NIRCam instrument, recorded as part of observations by astronomers from the UK and France. By looking at the nebula in the infrared, scientists can see the hot gas that makes up its structure, as well as the star in the center of the nebula that is responsible for its creation.
“The James Webb Space Telescope has provided us with an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we’ve never seen before,” said Mike Barlow, lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Project, in a statement. “The high-resolution images not only showcase the intricate details of the nebula’s expanding shell, but also reveal the inner region around the central white dwarf in exquisite clarity. We are witnessing the final chapters of a star’s life, a preview of the sun’s distant future so to speak, and JWST’s observations have opened a new window into understanding these awe-inspiring cosmic events. We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve.”
The researchers are studying objects like the Ring Nebula to learn more about how stars evolve and what happens to them toward the end of their lives.
“We are amazed by the details in the images, better than we have ever seen before,” said another of the researchers, Albert Zijlstra of the University of Manchester. “We always knew planetary nebulae were pretty. What we see now is spectacular.”