What does it look like when a star dies? The James Webb Space Telescope has given us a detailed look at the remains of a dying star that shows a new view of what Space.com called an “iconic cosmic halo.”
The telescope shone a new light on the Ring Nebula, or Messier 57, which is a planetary nebula where cosmic gas and dust formed the outer shell of a dying star, according to Space.com.
“Planetary nebulas were once thought to be simple, round objects with a single dying star at the center. They were named for their fuzzy, planet-like appearance through small telescopes,” Robert Wesson from Cardiff University said in a statement. “Only a few thousand years ago, that star was still a red giant that was shedding most of its mass. As a last farewell, the hot core now ionizes, or heats up, this expelled gas, and the nebula responds with colorful emission of light.”
The nebula is about 2,500 light-years away from Earth, which — when considering the vastness of space — is relatively close, The European Space Agency said. It can be seen with only a pair of binoculars on a clear summer night.
The images showed the details of a “filament structure of the inner ring,” as seen by the NIRCam, or Near-InfraRed Camera, the ESA said, while the MIRI, or Mid-InfraRed Instrument, showed “details in the concentric features in the outer regions of the nublae’s ring.”
“Our MIRI images provided us with the sharpest and clearest view yet of the faint molecular halo outside the bright ring. A surprising revelation was the presence of up to ten regularly-spaced, concentric features within this faint halo. These arcs must have formed about every 280 years as the central star was shedding its outer layers,” Wesson said.
“When a single star evolves into a planetary nebula, there is no process that we know of that has that kind of time period. Instead, these rings suggest that there must be a companion star in the system, orbiting about as far away from the central star as Pluto does from our Sun. As the dying star was throwing off its atmosphere, the companion star shaped the outflow and sculpted it. No previous telescope had the sensitivity and the spatial resolution to uncover this subtle effect,” he added.
There are also about 20,000 dense globules containing molecular hydrogen, each of which is about the size of Earth, NASA said, and an inner area of extremely hot gas.
As for the shape, the ESA called it a distorted doughnut from the viewpoint of one of the poles with the “brightly coloured barrel of material stretching away from us.” And while the center may look empty, it isn’t. Instead, it is packed with lower-density materials.