Webb Telescope Just Captured an Iconic Hubble Target in Incredible Detail

JWST's Near InfraRed Camera reveals the afterlife of a Sun-like star in intricate detail.

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Four thousand years ago, while ancient Egyptian laborers were building the Great Pyramid, a star 2,600 light years away shook off its outer layers and exhaled them out into space with its dying breath.

The slowly-cooling core of that dying star now sits at the center of an expanding ring of gas called the Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57. The Hubble Space Telescope originally captured the same nebula in 1999 — but that image, while iconic, was a little fuzzy. New images from the James Webb Space Telescope reveal more details of the inner region of hot gas that still surrounds the dead stellar core. This new data could shed light on the afterlives of smallish stars like our Sun, whose final breaths seed the rest of the galaxy with ingredients for new stars and planets.

The Ring Nebula is, confusingly, a different object from the Southern Ring Nebula, which was one of the first objects JWST imaged.


Tour the Ring Nebula

"We are witnessing the final chapters of a star's life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future, so to speak," says University of Manchester astronomer Mike Barlow, lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Project, in a recent statement. "We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve."

Some of the clumps of hydrogen gas in this image are starting to develop comet-like tails, according to a recent announcement from the University of Manchester,.


Most of the Ring Nebula is made up of hydrogen gas, which has cooled enough for its atoms to stick together to form hydrogen molecules. The gas has started clumping together in denser patches, giving the ring its intricate texture. That clumpy hydrogen makes up about half the gas in the ring nebula.

The hydrogen gas in this part of the nebula is thinner and hotter, thanks to the white dwarf at its heart — which is the brightest star in this image.


Inside the ring, the translucent green region is much hotter, much less dense hydrogen gas, which is still soaking up heat from the blazing, exposed core of the dead star. Even though the star has been dead — no longer fusing hydrogen into helium in its core — for a few thousand years, what’s left behind is still a scorching 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This dense remnant of a star is called a white dwarf, and it’s the brightest star in the center of the Ring Nebula.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of the Ring Nebula in 2013. The colors are strikingly different because Hubble and JWST see different wavelengths of light, which appear as different colors. In this image, blues are hotter and reds are cooler material.


Hubble last looked at the Ring Nebula in 2013, seen in the above image. A decade later, JWST’s higher-resolution instruments capture an even more detailed view of the nebula. But because Hubble and JWST see the universe in different wavelengths of light, astronomers will need to rely on both in order to fully understand how the Ring Nebula has evolved over the last few millennia.

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