Interesting Photo of the Day: Dying Star

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.

dying star

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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.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

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