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The James Webb Telescope is helping scientists learn more about the origins of the Southern Ring Nebula

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When astronomers saw the remarkable images of the Southern Annular Nebula (NGC 3132) taken by the James Webb Telescope, they realized that they needed to rethink their ideas about this object in the universe. The space observatory’s scientific instruments have helped unravel the formation history of the planet’s brightest and closest planetary nebula, according to Macquarie University in Australia.


Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

The Southern Ring Nebula is located about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Sail. It became one of the first scientific targets of the James Webb Space Telescope and its image was released to the public in July this year. Although this object was previously captured by the Hubble telescope, scientists did not have a complete understanding of the history of its formation and origin. Now, more detailed images of “James Webb” have made it possible to clarify this issue.

The Southern Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula that, despite its name, has nothing to do with planets, and is the result of a red giant explosion. When a star slightly larger than the Sun runs out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it gradually becomes a red giant, which can be hundreds of times larger than the original size of the star. As the helium and other elements burn, the red giant sheds its outer layers, which then form a nebula, which cools itself down to become a white dwarf.

    MIRI image of the nebula / Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

A snapshot of the nebula using the MIRI tool. Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

In Hubble images, the ejected layers form a smooth circular cloud, and the white dwarf appears as a small bright spot in the center of the ring. It is eclipsed by a much brighter and fully active companion star located at a distance equal to 1300 Earth radii from the Sun. The state-of-the-art James Webb telescope made it possible to see this object in detail using the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which is best suited for observing hot objects such as stars and the Mid-Infrared Camera (MIRI). ), designed to monitor dust accumulation.

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The results of Miri’s work immediately attracted the attention of scientists. Instead of the one large and small star known from Hubble’s observations, there were two stars of roughly the same size. Moreover, the star, which scientists considered a white dwarf, suddenly turned red. Scientists knew that the white dwarf must have a cold dust cloud around it, but the previously known companion star was too far away for the white dwarf to have an effect on it. Scientists suggest that another small star orbits near the white dwarf, which has never been seen before. It is she who emits dust, the accumulation of which is observed near the white dwarf.

    NIRCam image of the nebula / Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

A snapshot of the nebula using the NIRCam tool. Image source: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI

Thus, the system of two stars became a system of three stars, but the surprises did not end there. Further study of the data obtained from the space observatory led to the hypothesis that there is at least one star in the system, but most likely there are more of them. A star invisible to telescopes lies behind a cloud of dust near the white dwarf. Scientists were also interested in the many spiral structures radiating from the center of the nebula and thought to have formed as a result of the star’s gravitational interaction, from which the nebula formed with other nearby objects.

Scientists believe that further study of the Southern Annular Nebula will help them reproduce the formation of this object, as well as better understand how planetary nebulae form. This will help to understand what role planetary nebulae play in the process of forming material for future planets.

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