July 15, 2024


Technological development

NASA’s James Webb images reveal secrets of the Southern Ring nebula

NASA’s James Webb images reveal secrets of the Southern Ring nebula

The images have revealed unseen stars hidden within the nebula and have helped researchers understand its origins.

Researchers have delved deeper into a distant nebula thanks to the power of the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Southern Ring was one of the space observatory’s early targets, with detailed images of the nebula going public earlier this year.

These images revealed details that had been previously hidden to astronomers. Since then, a team of 70 researchers has been inspecting the enhanced images of the nebula to learn more about its origins.

“With Webb, it’s like we were handed a microscope to examine the universe,” lead researcher Orsola De Marco said. “There is so much detail in its images. We approached our analysis much like forensic scientists to rebuild the scene.”

The images have revealed that there were at least two more unseen stars that crafted the oblong, curvy shapes that make up the Southern Ring nebula.

Two images of the Southern Ring Nebula, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. The left image shows gases and two stars in the center, while the right image shows a blue star visible in the center, with different colours of gas and dust expanding out.

Two images of the Southern Ring nebula taken by the James Webb Space Telescope. The left image highlights the hot gas that surrounds the two central stars. The right shows the star’s scattered molecular outflows that have reached out. Image: NASA/ESA/CSA/Orsola De Marco (Macquarie University). Image processing: J DePasquale/STScI

The team also paired the James Webb images with existing data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia observatory. This helped the researchers calculate that the central star was nearly three times the mass of our sun before it ejected its layers of gas and dust.

After those ejections, the central star now measures roughly 60pc of the mass of our sun. The team said this information is critical to reconstructing the scene and projecting how the shapes in this nebula may have been created.

Before the dying star shed its layers, the researchers believe it may have interacted with one or two smaller “companion stars”.

These interacting stars may have launched two-sided jets, which appeared later as roughly paired projections that are now observed at the edges of the nebula. The team believes the dusty cloak around the dying star points to these interactions.

“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 said.

It is possible that these companion stars are either hidden by the bright light of the two central stars, or merged with the dying star.

The discovery of the hidden stars helps to showcase the powerful instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The successor observatory is on a mission to solve mysteries in the solar system, look to distant worlds around other stars and probe the origins of our universe.

The latest research could also help provide new insight into fundamental astrophysical processes, such as colliding winds and binary star interactions. This is according to the research team in their paper, which was recently published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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