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NASA REPORT: James Webb Space Telescope Captures Dying Star in Fine Detail in Before & After Image’s Compares with Hubble

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NASA’s Webb Captures Dying Star’s Final ‘Performance’ in Fine Detail

side-by-side views of Southern Ring planetary nebula as seen by Webb telescope (NIRCam, left; MIRI, right) against black backdrop of space; a bright star appears at center in both images, surrounded by an undulating ring of gas
Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI
  • NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed details of the Southern Ring planetary nebula that were previously hidden from astronomers. Planetary nebulae are the shells of gas and dust ejected from dying stars.
  • Webb’s powerful infrared view brings this nebula’s second star into full view, along with exceptional structures created as the stars shape the gas and dust around them.
  • New details like these, from the late stages of a star’s life, will help us better understand how stars evolve and transform their environments.
  • These images also reveal a cache of distant galaxies in the background. Most of the multi-colored points of light seen here are galaxies – not stars.

En español

Some stars save the best for last.

The dimmer star at the center of this scene has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years in all directions, and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has revealed for the first time that this star is cloaked in dust.

Two cameras aboard Webb captured the latest image of this planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 3132, and known informally as the Southern Ring Nebula. It is approximately 2,500 light-years away.

Webb will allow astronomers to dig into many more specifics about planetary nebulae like this one – clouds of gas and dust expelled by dying stars. Understanding which molecules are present, and where they lie throughout the shells of gas and dust will help researchers refine their knowledge of these objects.

This observation shows the Southern Ring Nebula almost face-on, but if we could rotate it to view it edge-on, its three-dimensional shape would more clearly look like two bowls placed together at the bottom, opening away from one another with a large hole at the center.

Two stars, which are locked in a tight orbit, shape the local landscape. Webb’s infrared images feature new details in this complex system. The stars – and their layers of light – are prominent in the image from Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on the left, while the image from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the right shows for the first time that the second star is surrounded by dust. The brighter star is in an earlier stage of its stellar evolution and will probably eject its own planetary nebula in the future.

In the meantime, the brighter star influences the nebula’s appearance. As the pair continues to orbit one another, they “stir the pot” of gas and dust, causing asymmetrical patterns.

Each shell represents an episode where the fainter star lost some of its mass. The widest shells of gas toward the outer areas of the image were ejected earlier. Those closest to the star are the most recent. Tracing these ejections allows researchers to look into the history of the system.

Observations taken with NIRCam also reveal extremely fine rays of light around the planetary nebula. Starlight from the central stars streams out where there are holes in the gas and dust – like sunlight through gaps in a cloud.

Since planetary nebulae exist for tens of thousands of years, observing the nebula is like watching a movie in exceptionally slow motion. Each shell the star puffed off gives researchers the ability to precisely measure the gas and dust that are present within it.

As the star ejects shells of material, dust and molecules form within them – changing the landscape even as the star continues to expel material. This dust will eventually enrich the areas around it, expanding into what’s known as the interstellar medium. And since it’s very long-lived, the dust may end up traveling through space for billions of years and become incorporated into a new star or planet.

In thousands of years, these delicate layers of gas and dust will dissipate into surrounding space.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science observatory. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

NASA Headquarters oversees the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages Webb for the agency and oversees work on the mission performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners. In addition to Goddard, several NASA centers contributed to the project, including the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California; Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama; Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; and others.

NIRCam was built by a team at the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center.

MIRI was contributed by ESA and NASA, with the instrument designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

Download full-resolution, uncompressed versions and supporting visuals for this image from the Space Telescope Science Institute:

Last Updated: Jul 12, 2022: Editor: Rob Garner

Comparing NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope images to Hubble’s pictures

A collection of five galaxies as seen from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope
The view of Stephan’s Quintet is around 290 million years old.(Reuters: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team)none

New images released by NASA have captured an astonishing level of detail of the universe never seen before.

The images, taken by NASA’s $13 billion James Webb Space Telescope, have previously been captured by the Hubble Telescope, but show a much more complex picture of the universe.

The reason for the difference between the two come down to their different-sized mirrors and different capabilities.

Webb’s mirror is nearly three times bigger than Hubble’s, and Webb is able to capture the universe in the infrared spectrum, while Hubble largely captures images at visible and ultraviolet light.

Hubble is also in a much closer orbit to earth, meaning it can’t peer back as far in time compared to Webb.Got a question about the images or the telescope? Ask our experts in our live blog. 

Carina Nebula

The “Cosmic Cliffs” captured by Webb have built on Hubble’s imagery of the Carina Nebula.

The striking image shows the mountains and valleys of the region that’s 7,600 light-years away where stars are born.

Stephan’s Quintet

This cluster was first discovered in 1877, but Webb’s image captures five galaxies, including a black hole, that’s from 290 million years ago.

The image captured by Hubble appeared to show the galaxies surrounded by darkness — but Webb has turned that on its head, and could provide insights into how early galaxies formed at the start of the universe.

Southern Ring Nebula

The incredible detail captured by Webb shows the nebula cloaked in dust and emitting gas, giving scientists a greater insight into the process a star goes through when it dies.

SMACS 0723

The deepest view of the cosmos was the first image released from Webb, providing a glittering view of stars and galaxies from about 4.6 billion years ago — the farthest humanity has ever seen in time and distance.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson gave an insight into the scale of the cluster when the image was released on Monday.

“If you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe you are seeing.

“It’s just a tiny sliver of the vast universe.”

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