James Webb Space Telescope captures messy death of a star system

southern ring nebula image from the james webb space telescope
The Southern Ring Nebula captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Orsola De Marco)

Space exploration takes all of us here at Digital Camera World back to our childhood of pouring over beautiful images of planets and galaxies in astronomy books. We of course get very excited every time a new image is released from Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope. 

A lot of incredible images have been coming from the Webb Telescope recently. Just a week ago we got a new view of Saturn’s moon Titan (opens in new tab) and its cloudy atmosphere, the most distant starlight ever seen (opens in new tab), or stunning images of the sparkling dwarf galaxy (opens in new tab) just outside the Milky Way.

These new photos from NASA (opens in new tab) show off never before seen stars that together craft the shape of the Southern Ring Nebula. Nasa worked together with the European Space Agency’s Gaia Observatory to put together the data collected by the ESA combining it with the brand new infrared images coming from the James Webb Telescope, to create these stunning images.

The team used this data to calculate the original mass of the star before it ejected the layers of gas and dust that can be seen in these images, with the star now having a mass 60% less than before this expulsion, this helps the scientists wind back the clock and figure out how this nebula was first created.

Orsola De Marco from Macquarie University in Sydney who worked on the project to analyze the data said “With Webb, it’s like we were handed a microscope to examine the universe. There is so much detail in its images. We approached our analysis much like forensic scientists to rebuild the scene.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope offers dramatically different views of the Southern Ring Nebula. Each image combines near- and mid-infrared light from three filters. At left, Webb’s image of the Southern Ring Nebula highlights the very hot gas that surrounds the two central stars. At right, Webb’s image traces the star’s scattered molecular outflows that have reached farther into the cosmos. In the image at left, blue and green were assigned to Webb’s near-infrared data taken in 1.87 and 4.05 microns (F187N and F405N), and red was assigned to Webb’s mid-infrared data taken in 18 microns (F1800W). In the image at right, blue and green were assigned to Webb’s near-infrared data taken in 2.12 and 4.7 microns (F212N and F470N), and red was assigned to Webb’s mid-infrared data taken in 7.7 microns (F770W). (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Orsola De Marco)
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Using the Webb Telescope’s near and mid-infrared wavelengths, scientists were able to determine different phenomena around the nebula. The compiled images clearly show that the two central stars are surrounded by very hot gas, the second image shows in more detail the dust and other molecular outflows that have been thrown out further into the cosmos. The ‘spokes’ that can be seen are light from the central stars breaking through holes in the dust.

southern ring nebula image from the james webb space telescope

Examine the straight, brightly-lit lines that pierce through the rings of gas and dust around the edges of the Southern Ring Nebula in the James Webb Space Telescope’s image. These “spokes” appear to emanate from one or both of the central stars, marking where light streams through holes in the nebula. A research team projects that the straight lines may have been shot out hundreds of years earlier and at greater speeds than those that appear thicker and curvy. It’s possible the second set is a mix of material that slowed, creating less linear shapes. In this image, blue and green were assigned to Webb’s near-infrared data taken in 2.12 and 4.7 microns (F212N and F470N), and red was assigned to Webb’s mid-infrared data taken in 7.7 microns (F770W). (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Orsola De Marco)

Before the stars shed their layers, the scientists are proposing that the stars interacted with other companion stars, formed an intergalactic dance that formed the shape of the nebula, with up to five stars working in unison to form the complex curves and bumps that can make up the Southern Ring Nebula. Joel Kastner, from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and another researcher working on the project, said, “We think all that gas and dust we see thrown all over the place must have come from that one star, but it was tossed in very specific directions by the companion stars.”

This might have been shaped further by companion stars releasing ‘jets’ that create opposing bumps in the nebula. “This is much more hypothetical, but if two companions were interacting with the dying star, they would launch toppling jets that could explain these opposing bumps,” De Marco explained.

How did up to five stars create the Southern Ring Nebula? Panel 1 shows a wider field with stars 1, 2, and 5, the last of which orbits star 1 far more tightly than star 2 does. Panel 2 zooms way in on the scene, and two other stars (3 and 4) appear in view; star 3 is emitting jets. Panel 3 shows star 1 expanding as it ages. Both stars 3 and 4 have sent off a series of jets. In panel 4 we zoom out to see how light and stellar winds are carving out a bubble-like cavity. Star 1 is surrounded by a dusty disk. In the fifth panel, star 5 is interacting with the ejected gas and dust, generating the system of large rings seen in the outer nebula. The sixth panel portrays the scene as we observe it today. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Orsola De Marco)
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If you want to see more Webb image releases, head to the James Webb Space Telescope gallery (opens in new tab), where you can see all of Webb's first images and learn more about what they depict. 

If you're feeling inspired, why not try deep-space photography (opens in new tab), and check out our choices for the best telescopes (opens in new tab) for stargazing at home?

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Gareth Bevan
Reviews Editor

Gareth is a photographer based in London, working as a freelance photographer and videographer for the past several years, having the privilege to shoot for some household names. With work focusing on fashion, portrait and lifestyle content creation, he has developed a range of skills covering everything from editorial shoots to social media videos. Outside of work, he has a personal passion for travel and nature photography, with a devotion to sustainability and environmental causes.

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