(IN BRIEF) The James Webb Space Telescope has revealed a captivating new image of the Ring Nebula, collaborating with ESA, NASA, CSA, and an international team. This image, alongside a previous one, unveils the nebula’s intricate features, showcasing its central ring of molecular hydrogen gas and its outer shell with enhanced carbon-based molecule emissions. Notably, the MIRI image introduces ten concentric arcs beyond the main ring, believed to result from interactions between a dying red giant star and a distant companion star. This discovery offers insights into celestial object formation and evolution. The international team involves researchers from various countries, underscoring the telescope’s significance in advancing cosmic understanding.
(PRESS RELEASE) LONDON, 21-Aug-2023 — /EuropaWire/ — An enthralling depiction of the Ring Nebula, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, has been unveiled through a collaborative effort by ESA, NASA, CSA, and an international team of astronomers led by a UCL researcher. This captivating image discloses novel facets within the outer fringes of the ring, providing fresh insights into its nature.
Presented alongside a prior image taken earlier this month, which showcased the Ring Nebula in shorter wavelengths of infrared light captured by James Webb’s NIRCam, the newly released image from James Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) enhances our understanding of this celestial spectacle.
Located approximately 2,600 light years away in the Lyra constellation, the Ring Nebula emerged from the remnants of a dying star’s expulsion of its outer layers nearly 4,000 years ago—a fate anticipated for our Sun. The two images unravel its intricate components—rings, bubbles, and delicate clouds—with unprecedented precision.
The central ring of the nebula comprises about 20,000 clusters of dense molecular hydrogen gas, each weighing as much as Earth, enveloped in searing ionized gas. Meanwhile, the inner region is predominantly composed of this heated gas. Additionally, the principal shell encases a delicate circle of intensified emissions originating from carbon-based molecules referred to as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Of notable significance, the MIRI image presents, for the first time, approximately 10 concentric arcs positioned just beyond the periphery of the primary ring. The origins of these arcs, forming roughly every 280 years, pose an intriguing puzzle as no known stellar evolution process corresponds to this time frame. Hence, the hypothesis posits that these arcs may have materialized from interactions between the expiring red giant star and a companion star positioned at a distance akin to Pluto’s separation from the Sun.
Leading the James Webb Space Telescope Ring Nebula Project, Professor Mike Barlow from UCL Physics & Astronomy conveyed, “This remarkable MIRI image reveals hitherto unseen features, notably the arcs extending beyond the main ring. These structures emerged during the red giant phase of the central star, preceding the ejection of most of its matter, transforming it into the current hot white dwarf star. Preliminary assessments by our team indicate that a low-mass companion star with an eccentric orbit triggered an amplified release of materials from the dying star as it made close passes every 280 years, giving rise to these arcs.”
Dr. Roger Wesson of Cardiff University further elaborated, “Our MIRI images granted us an exquisitely detailed view of the faint molecular halo encircling the luminous ring. Notably, we were surprised by the presence of up to ten regularly spaced concentric features within this subtle halo. No earlier telescope possessed the sensitivity and spatial resolution to unveil this subtle effect.”
The color palettes of the two images reflect infrared (invisible) light emanating from various wavelengths attributed to the nebula’s chemical components and warm dust particles. The thorough analysis of these images aspires to deepen our comprehension of the intricate processes underlying the genesis and evolution of such celestial phenomena.
The Ring Nebula, an iconic celestial object, was first encountered by astronomers Charles Messier and Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix in 1779. The discovery transpired as they endeavored to trace the course of a comet within the Lyra constellation. Historically categorized as a “planetary nebula” due to its superficial resemblance to planets, the Ring Nebula remains a celestial wonder that continues to captivate.
The international research consortium scrutinizing these images encompasses scientists from diverse regions including the UK, France, Canada, USA, Sweden, Spain, Brazil, Ireland, and Belgium. The James Webb Space Telescope materializes through the collaborative partnership between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
E: m.greaves [at] ucl.ac.uk
SOURCE: University College London