NASA released a new image of the famous Ring Nebula this morning (May 23, 2013). This object – aka (M57), located some 2,000 light-years away in the direction of our constellation Lyra the Harp – is beloved by amateur astronomers. They love it because they’re able to pick it out and gaze at it through small telescopes, in which it appears as a pale white smoke ring in space. But now we know more about what the Ring Nebula really looks like. Check out the image below.
The Ring Nebula – or M57 – is a shell of gas, released from a dying star. It’s not an abrupt explosion of materials, but a more gentle sloughing off into space. Hubble observations reveal that the nebula’s shape is more complicated than astronomers thought. NASA said:
The blue gas in the nebula’s center is actually a football-shaped structure that pierces the red doughnut-shaped material. Hubble also uncovers the detailed structure of the dark, irregular knots of dense gas embedded along the inner rim of the ring. The knots look like spokes in a bicycle. The Hubble images have allowed the research team to match up the knots with the spikes of light around the bright, main ring, which are a shadow effect.
The faint, scallop-shaped material surrounding the ring was expelled by the star during the early stages of the planetary nebula formation.
It’s cool to have witnessed the evolution of our knowledge about the true shape of the Ring Nebula, over the past decades.
Bottom line: NASA has released a new image of the famous Ring Nebula, M57, in the constellation Lyra. It’s a composite image, made with visible light and infrared. It shows much more structure in the Ring Nebula than we thought was there from earlier Hubble images. And it’s vastly more intricate than thousands of amateur astronomers imagined, as they peered at the smoke ring of M57 through amateur telescopes over the last decades.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.