The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has revealed details about the Southern Ring planetary nebula that were previously hidden from astronomers.
Planetary nebulae are the shells of gas and dust ejected by dying stars. Webb’s powerful infrared view highlights the second star in this nebula, as well as unique structures created when stars shape the gas and dust around them. New details like these about the final stages of a star’s life will help us better understand how stars evolve and transform their environment. These images also reveal a cache of distant galaxies in the background. Most of the multicolored bright spots seen here are galaxies, not stars.
Some stars save the best for last.
The fainter star at the center of this scene has been sending rings of gas and dust in all directions for thousands of years, and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is covered in dust.
Two cameras aboard Webb captured the last image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132 and known informally as the South Ring Nebula. It is about 2500 light years away.
Webb will allow astronomers to dig into much more detail about planetary nebulae like this – clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars. Understanding what molecules are present and where they are in the shells of gas and dust will help researchers refine their knowledge of these objects.
This observation shows the Southern Ring Nebula almost face-on. If we could rotate it to view it from the edge, its three-dimensional shape would look more like two bowls placed together at the bottom, opening relative to each other with a large hole in the center.
Two stars, which are locked together in a tight orbit, shape the local landscape. Webb’s infrared images show new details in this complex system. Stars – and their layers of light – feature prominently in the image from Webb’s Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), while the image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust. The brighter star is at an earlier stage in its evolution and will likely eject its own planetary nebula in the future.
Meanwhile, the brightest star influences the appearance of the nebula. As the pair continue to orbit each other, they “stir the pot” of gas and dust, causing asymmetrical patterns.
Each shell represents an episode in which the faintest star lost some of its mass. The larger gas shells towards the outer areas of the image were ejected earlier. Those closest to the star are the most recent. Tracing these ejections allows researchers to look into the history of the system.
Observations taken with NIRCam also reveal extremely fine rays of light around the planetary nebula. Light from the central stars shoots out where there are holes in the gas and dust – like sunlight through the gaps in a cloud.
As planetary nebulae have been around for tens of thousands of years, observing a nebula is like watching an exceptional slow motion movie. Each shell the star has inflated gives researchers the ability to accurately measure the gas and dust within.
When the star ejects shells of material, dust and molecules form inside them, changing the landscape even as the star continues to expel material. This dust will eventually enrich the areas around it, expanding into what is called the interstellar medium. And because it’s so long-lived, dust can end up traveling through space for billions of years and becoming incorporated into a new star or planet.
Thousands of years from now, these delicate layers of gas and dust will dissipate into the surrounding space.
Webb is the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope launch service, using the Ariane 5 launcher. Together with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of the adaptations of ‘Ariane 5 for the Webb mission and launch service supply by Arianespace. ESA also provided the high-performance NIRSpec spectrograph and 50% of the MIRI mid-infrared instrument, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European institutes (the European MIRI Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.
Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
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Find more early footage of Webb here.