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The Ring Nebula’s true shape

The Ring Nebula’s true shape – revealed in this composite image made in visible light and infrared – is vastly more intricate than astronomers knew.

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.

View larger. | Composite image of Ring Nebula.  Visible-light observations by Hubble Space Telescope combined with infrared data from the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

View larger. | Composite image of Ring Nebula. Visible-light observations by Hubble Space Telescope combined with infrared data from the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

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.

M57 - The Ring Nebula

Here’s an earlier Hubble Space Telescope image of the Ring Nebula. The colors identify various elements like hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. Image via the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

And here's what the Ring Nebula looks like to the eye, as seen through an amateur telescope.  This image is not a photo.  It's a drawing from a superb astronomical artist, Jeremy Perez at the wonderful Belt of Venus website.

And here’s what the Ring Nebula looks like to the eye, as seen through an amateur telescope. This image is not a photo. It’s a drawing from a superb astronomical artist, Jeremy Perez at the wonderful Belt of Venus website.

It’s cool to have witnessed the evolution of our knowledge about the true shape of the Ring Nebula, over the past decades.

Read more about the new composite image of the Ring Nebula from NASA

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

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