Images from the James Webb Space Telescope reveal fascinating new detail about the incandescent debris surrounding a dying star.
New observations of Messier 57, often known as the Ring Nebula, were released earlier this month; the photographs, which have been cleaned, polished, and processed, show the fading star like you’ve never seen it before.
The observations, made with the near-infrared NIRCam and mid-infrared MIRI, show several elements of the death throes of the Sun-like star at the heart of the nebula. NIRCam images reveal the complexities of the nebula’s filaments and knots, while MIRI observations reveal the subtle traceries of concentric features in the outer parts.
A planetary nebula, or The Ring Nebula, is 2,750 light-years away and is the dying remnant of a star that once resembled the Sun. Sun-like stars begin to become unstable and release their outer material when they run out of fuel to sustain the hydrogen fusion in their cores.
The star core falls under gravity into a white dwarf because it can no longer withstand the outward pressure of fusion. The Sun and the majority of the Milky Way’s stars will eventually meet this end.
A star that, from our perspective, reached the end of fusion some time in the past 2,000 years gave rise to the Ring Nebula. The white dwarf at its core has a mass of roughly 60% that of the Sun, and the material surrounding it is expanding into space in a sphere that appears to us to be a ring-shaped mass of luminous material.
The nebula’s dusty, thick exterior is sculpted into fascinating shapes where it penetrates the interstellar medium. The nebula is seen in the new photos to contain over 20,000 compact, hydrogen-rich globules, and the light from the main shell reveals that it is also rich in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the sort of carbon that makes up soot.
It is believed that the star’s circumconcentric rings are the result of an interaction with a binary companion. The interior of the chamber is filled with hot, flimsy gas.
Astronomers will gain a better understanding of how most of the stars in the Universe will die by studying the specifics of these finer structures as discovered by the JWST.
Astrophysicist Mike Barlow of University College London in the UK and co-leader of the international JWST Ring Nebula Project said, “We are witnessing the final chapters of a star’s life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future, in a way. JWST’s observations have opened a new window into understanding these awe-inspiring cosmic events.
The Ring Nebula can serve as a laboratory for research into the formation and evolution of planetary nebulae.
You can download wallpaper-sized versions of the new images from the ESA Webb website.