- NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed details of a planetary nebula called the Southern Ring Nebula that was previously hidden from astronomers. Planetary nebulae are the layers of gas and dust that some stars expel as they die.
- Webb’s powerful infrared view brings the second star in this nebula into full view, along with the unusual structures created when stars form the surrounding gas and dust.
- New details, such as these from the later stages of a star’s life, will help us better understand how stars evolve and transform their environment.
- These images also reveal distant galaxies hidden in the background. Most of the multicolored points of light we see here are galaxies, not stars.
Some stars save the best for last.
The faint star in the center of this scene had been emitting rings of gas and dust in all directions for thousands of years. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is covered in dust.
Two cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, classified as NGC 3132 and informally known as the Southern Ring Nebula. This nebula is about 2500 light years away.
Webb will allow the astronomical community to delve into many other specific details about planetary nebulae like these, which are formed from clouds of gas and dust emitted by dying stars. Understanding what molecules are, and where they are found in the layers of gas and dust, will help researchers improve their understanding of these things.
This observation shows the Southern Ring Nebula in almost frontal view, but if we could rotate it to see it from the side, its three-dimensional shape would be seen more clearly when two bowls connected at the base, moving away from each other. Big hole in the middle.
Two stars, bound in a narrow orbit, make up the local landscape. Webb’s infrared images provide new details about this complex system. The stars and their optical layers are prominent in the near-infrared camera (NIRCam) image on the left, while the mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) image on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust. The brightest star is at an early stage in its stellar evolution and is likely to eject its planetary nebula in the future.
Meanwhile, the brightest star affects the appearance of the nebula. As the pair continues to spin around each other, they “spit out” the gas and dust, producing asymmetric patterns.
Each layer represents a ring in which the fainter star loses some of its mass. The thick layers of gas were expelled towards the outer regions of the image earlier. The closest to the star are the newer ones. Tracking these emissions allows researchers to glimpse the history of this system.
NIRCam observations also reveal very fine bands of light around the planetary nebula. Light streams from central stars where there are holes in gas and dust, like sunlight rushing through gaps in a cloud.
Since planetary nebulae have existed for tens or thousands of years, observing the nebula is like watching a movie in very slow motion. Each projectile ejected by the star gives researchers the ability to accurately measure the gas and dust within.
As the star sheds layers of material, particles and dust form within these layers, changing the landscape even as the star continues to shed material. This dust will eventually enrich the surroundings, extending into what is known as the interstellar medium. Because it has a very long life, dust can end up traveling through space for billions of years and become a new star or planet.
Within a few thousand years, these fine layers of gas and dust will dissipate into the void around them.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve the mysteries of our solar system, see beyond the distant worlds around other stars, and explore the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners: the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
NASA Headquarters oversees the mission of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages Webb for the agency and oversees mission work on the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners. In addition to the Goddard Center, several NASA centers have contributed to the project, including the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. California, among others.
For the full set of Webb’s early images and spectra, including downloadable files, please visit:
Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb’s ERO Production Team
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