The famous Ring Nebula was already gorgeous, but the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just captured it in an entirely new way.
The eye-shaped “planetary” nebula is also known as M57 or NGC 6720 and is in our cosmic backyard at just 2,500 light-years away.
Despite the name, the stunning nebula has nothing to do with planets though – it was formed when a red giant star reached the end of its life and began shucking off outer layers of gas into the space surrounding it.
Over the last 50 years, scientists have been able to confirm that the nebula is still expanding at a rate of 20-30 km per second.
While the Ring Nebula was discovered all the way back in 1779 and it has been imaged many times by telescopes like Hubble, these new images from Webb provide unprecedented detail.
The first image – shown below – is from NIRCam (Near-InfraRed Camera) which gives much more detail to the finger-like gas inside the nebula’s ring.
A differently-coloured version of this image was released by collaborators at the University of Manchester a fortnight ago.
The second image is from the MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) and highlights concentric features in the outer regions.
While the middle of the image might look empty to us, it’s actually full of a lower density material, along with the central star which is on its way to becoming a white dwarf.
From this angle, we are looking at a peephole of this lower density material, with a shape similar to a rugby ball from the tip.
The full nebula is shaped a bit like a distorted donut.
If you want to go looking for the nebula yourself, it’s located south of the star Vega, and can easily be found by amateur astronomers.
You can download a high-quality version of the image here.