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Starts With A Bang

JWST reveals the Ring Nebula like never before

The "Ring Nebula," known for almost 250 years, is so much more than a Ring. With JWST's capabilities, we're seeing more than ever before.
ring nebula hubble jwst nircam miri
This image shows the same astronomical object, the Ring Nebula, in three different views: from Hubble (at left), from JWST's NIRCam instrument (center), and from JWST's MIRI instrument (right). At longer wavelengths, features unseen in visible light spectacularly appear.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson; NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University)
Key Takeaways
  • Located just over 2,000 light-years from Earth, the Ring Nebula is the closest dying Sun-like star we've ever found.
  • Its outer, expelled layers of gas are ionized and illuminated as the Sun-like star within heats up and contracts down to form a white dwarf.
  • With its 3D structure fully mapped out, the "ring" feature is just one of many inside this fascinating nebula. Come see it like no one else before.

Out there in space, the stars remind us that even our Sun won’t live forever.

cutaway sun
This cutaway showcases the various regions of the surface and interior of the Sun, including the core, which is the only location where nuclear fusion occurs. As time goes on and hydrogen is consumed, the helium-containing region in the core expands and the maximum temperature increases, causing the Sun’s energy output to increase. When both hydrogen and helium are exhausted within the fusion-rich core region, the star will die.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/KelvinSong

All stars eventually exhaust their nuclear fuel, running out of fusible material.

planetary nebula
The Egg Nebula, as imaged here by Hubble, is a preplanetary nebula, as its outer layers have not yet been heated to sufficient temperatures by the central, contracting star to become fully ionized. Many of the giant stars visible today will evolve into a nebula like this before shedding their outer layers completely and dying in a white dwarf/planetary nebula combination. As the central star loses mass, the outermost objects in that stellar system, such as the analogue of our Oort cloud and Kuiper belt, become ejected.
Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), Hubble Space Telescope/ACS

For Sun-like stars, they’ll grow into red giants, and afterward, gently die away.

planetary nebula
When the central star in a dying stellar system heats up to about temperatures of ~30,000 K, it becomes hot enough to ionize the previously ejected material, creating a true planetary nebula in the case of a Sun-like star. Here, NGC 7027 has just recently crossed that threshold, and is still rapidly expanding. At just ~0.1-to-0.2 light-years across, it is one of the smallest and youngest planetary nebulae known.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

They first pulse, blowing off their outer, gaseous layers.

green planetary nebula
Around a variety of stellar corpses and dying stars, doubly-ionized oxygen atoms produce a characteristic green glow, as electrons cascade down the various energy levels when heated to temperatures exceeding ~50,000 K. Here, the planetary nebula IC 1295 shines brilliantly. This phenomenon also helps color the so-called “green pea” galaxies, as well as Earth’s aurorae.
Credit: ESO

Then the central, fuel-exhausted star contracts and heats up: forming a white dwarf.

planetary nebula
When our Sun runs out of fuel, it will become a red giant, followed by a planetary nebula with a white dwarf at the center. The Cat’s Eye nebula is a visually spectacular example of this potential fate, with the intricate, layered, asymmetrical shape of this particular one suggesting a binary companion. At the center, a young white dwarf heats up as it contracts, reaching temperatures tens of thousands of Kelvin hotter than the surface of the red giant that spawned it. The outer shells of gas are mostly hydrogen, which gets returned to the interstellar medium at the end of a Sun-like star’s life.
Credit: Nordic Optical Telescope and Romano Corradi (Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, Spain)

This heating ionizes and illuminates the ejected material, creating a planetary nebula.

An image of the ring nebula.
This 2013 image of the Ring Nebula, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, showcases the visible light features of the Ring Nebula: the closest planetary nebula to Earth. The Nebula, despite its elliptical, ring-like appearance here, is actually shaped like a distorted donut with two lobes, one pointing toward us and one away from us, emerging from the central region.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University)

The closest planetary nebula to Earth is just over ~2000 light-years away: the Ring Nebula.

sheliak sulafat M57 ring nebula
The Ring Nebula can be found just inside the Summer Triangle in the constellation of Lyra: just south of the brightest star, Vega. Found in between the 2nd and 3rd brightest stars in Lyra’s constellation, the imaginary line connecting the blue giant stars Sheliak and Sulafat contains the Ring Nebula, circled in red, which can be spotted even with a pair of off-the-shelf binoculars.
Credit: NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2

Discovered in 1779, its ring-like appearance is only part of the story.

The ring nebula in space.
Outside of the main features seen in the ring nebula, thin, wispy, outermore populations of gas, mostly hydrogen gas, are revealed by the Large Binocular Telescope at Mount Graham International Observatory. By combining data from multiple observatories, composite images revealing unprecedented features can be constructed.
Credit: NASA, ESA, C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University), and David Thompson (LBTO)

An enormous set of diffuse, hydrogen-rich shells surround it.

The ring nebula in space.
The red outer shells are signs of ionized hydrogen gas, huge and intricate outside the ring itself. Sulfur and Oxygen ions, expelled from the star and prominent in the ring area, are viewed in the other colors shown here. Spectroscopic imaging, where particular emission lines from a specific element, is key to teasing out these features.
Credit: A. Oscoz, D. López, P. Rodríguez-Gil and L. Chinarro; IAC astrophotography group

Two lobes of low-density gas extend in both directions along our line-of-sight.

A diagram showing the structure of a star.
This schematic shows the geometry and structure of the Ring Nebula (Messier 57) as it would appear if viewed from the side, rather than along our line-of-sight. This shows the nebula’s wide halo, inner region, lower-density lobes of material stretching toward and away from us, and the prominent, glowing disc.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

The “ring” feature appears so prominently because we’re oriented along the nebula’s poles.

An image of a blue and red ring in the dark.
This view showcases a three-dimensional model of the Ring Nebula, as well as its inner and outer structures, as we would experience it if it were rotated a full 360 degrees around the main ring structure. Perpendicular lobes, spike-rich emission emerging from dense knots, and the outer halos are all visible.
Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Bacon and F. Summers (STScI)

But JWST’s infrared eyes reveal features superior to any other view.

The ring nebula in space.
This three-panel animation fades between visible light (Hubble) views, near-infrared (JWST NIRCam) views, and even cooler mid-infrared (JWST MIRI) views. This planetary nebula is one of the most well-studied in all of history, yet JWST can still reveal features never seen before.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson; NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University); Animation: E. Siegel

Its high-resolution cameras reveal ~20,000 dense knots of gas inside.

The ring nebula in space.
The near-infrared JWST view (with NIRCam) of the Ring Nebula showcases tendril-like filaments emerging from the main ring, a thin series of concentric shells outside the main ring, and wispy, knotty globules on the interior of the main ring: approximately 20,000 of them. The nebula is very hydrogen-rich, with carbon-based molecules appearing in a thin ring.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson

The inner filaments showcase intricate details as radiation gradually boils them away.

An image of a ring nebula in space.
The mid-infrared (JWST MIRI) view of the Ring Nebula showcases the diffuse, low-density gas inside the nebula, the extended filaments emerging outward from the main ring, and the concentric ring features that are likely carved by a binary companion to the Ring Nebula, perhaps located at the same distance that our Solar System’s Kuiper belt is found from our Sun.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson

Roughly 10 concentric arcs, rich in hydrocarbons, surround the main “ring” feature.

The ring nebula in space.
This animated view that transitions between JWST’s NIRCam and JWST’s MIRI views of the Ring Nebula reveals the difference in structure and detail that different wavelengths of light can reveal. The nebula appears bigger in mid-infrared light because outermore, cooler components radiate at wavelengths that are invisible at short wavelengths, but that emit detectable signatures at longer wavelengths.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson; Animation: E. Siegel

Inside, warm, lower-density material fills the inner spheroidal region.

The ring nebula in space.
This animation fades between JWST’s NIRCam (infrared) views and Hubble’s optical views. JWST reveals additional stars, background galaxies, and gas features both inside and outside the nebula compared to Hubble’s views. The power of JWST’s improved resolution and deeper infrared wavelength coverage is on full display in this animation.
Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Barlow, N. Cox, R. Wesson; NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University); Animation: E. Siegel

Overall, JWST unveils the Ring Nebula more accurately than ever before.

A green nebula in the middle of stars.
In 2005, NASA’s Spitzer, the infrared space telescope that paved the way for JWST, imaged the Ring Nebula and discovered this interior and exterior set of structures around it. Compared to JWST’s views, it’s easy to see what improvements have occurred from the previous to the current generation of infrared space telescopes.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Hora (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words.


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