New data returned from the Hubble space telescope has revealed the most high-resolution images ever captured of Messier 57. The dramatic nebula, widely known as the Ring Nebula, is shown in intricate detail, revealing a structure that until now had been just theory.
According to NASA, the colorful gases that comprise the nebula have been thrown off by a dying star at the center -- and are now seen filled with intricate, lower-density material stretching throughout the colorful ring. That star at the core of the Ring Nebula is a white dwarf, the remnant of a star similar to our sun that burned out just a few thousand years ago.
As stars lose their reserves of hydrogen, their outer atmospheres puff out and escape into space. These still-expanding clouds of gas, now about a light-year across in the Ring Nebula's case, form the planetary nebulae, NASA says.
From these new observations, astronomers say the nebula's blue center -- emitted from atoms of helium -- is actually shaped like a football. The darker spines on the inside of the reddish ring are towers of gas slightly denser than their surroundings. The inner ring's sea-green glow is produced by hydrogen and oxygen, while the red of the outer ring traces nitrogen. The darker orange comes from sulfur.
The full sized, 18MB image of the Ring Nebula can be seen here.
NASA, ESA, C. Robert O
Around the Ring Nebula
This composite image of the Ring Nebula combines new Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 data with observations of the nebula's outer halo from the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.
NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2
This wide-field image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows the Ring Nebula and its surroundings.
NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
Geometry and structure of the Ring Nebula
This graphic shows the geometry and structure of the Ring Nebula as viewed from the side, showing the nebula's wide halo, inner region, lower-density lobes of material stretching towards and away from us, and the prominent, glowing disc.
Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA)
Ring Nebula, 1998
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captured what at the time was the sharpest view yet of the Ring Nebula, taken in October 1998.