A star in its death throes shines like gold in new images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
It’s called Messier 57, also known as the Ring Nebula, a glowing circle of gas in the Lyra constellation about 2,750 light-years from Earth, formed by the expulsion of material by a lower-mass star as it dies. The JWST’s spectacular resolution will reveal the intricate knots and patterns in this material to better understand what happens when stars like the Sun reach the end of their lives.
“We are witnessing the final chapters in a star’s life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future, so to speak, and the JWST observations have opened a new window in understanding these stunning cosmic events,” said astrophysicist Mike Barlow of University College London, UK Co-leader of the international JWST Ring Nebula Project.
“We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve.”
A planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets; They are so named because 18th-century astronomers thought their round shape was planet-like. They are actually much larger and more dynamic: the clouds of material that surround stars smaller than eight solar masses that are at the end of their lives.
When they run out of material to fuse at their cores, these stars destabilize and eject all of their outer material. The stellar core, no longer supported by the external pressure of fusion, collapses under gravity into a white dwarf. This is the ultimate fate of the Sun and most of the stars in the Milky Way.
The Ring Nebula was created by a star that we believe reached the end of fusion sometime in the last 2,000 years. At its center is a white dwarf with about 60 percent the mass of the Sun; Matter around this star is expanding outward into space in a sphere that looks to us like a ring filled with glowing matter.
Thick and dusty, the nebula’s outer shell is fashioned into intricate structures where it enters and interacts with the interstellar medium. Studying these structures can help scientists understand the physical processes involved in the shape and extent of a planetary nebula. and the JWST has delivered stunning detail.
“The James Webb Space Telescope has given us an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we have never seen before,” says Barlow. “The high-resolution images not only reveal the intricate details of the nebula’s expanding envelope, but also show the inner region around the central white dwarf in exquisite clarity.”
frameborder=”0″allow=”accelerometer; auto play; clipboard writing; encrypted media; Gyroscope; picture in picture; web share”allowfullscreen>
The data is still being analyzed, but the observations are already revealing an unexpected complexity that the team is keen to explore. In addition to the incredible detail seen in the shell’s structure, the observations have also provided a wealth of data on the nebula’s composition, including large carbon-based molecules whose origin is currently unclear.
“These images have more than just an aesthetic appeal; they provide a wealth of scientific insight into the processes of stellar evolution,” says astrophysicist Nick Cox of ACRI-ST in France and co-leader of the JWST Ring Nebula project.
“By studying the Ring Nebula with JWST, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of stellar life cycles and the elements they release into the cosmos.”