Cosmic Snack: Donut-Shaped Ring Nebula Spotted By Hubble

By James Maynard , May 23, 2013 04:48 PM EDT

The Ring Nebula has been imaged like never before, revealing its true form, which is not a ring, as the name might suggest. The pictures gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope, along with pictures from the ground, allowed researchers to construct a composite photograph of the nebula that revealed a far more complex structure than once believed.

Once commonly described as having the shape of a bagel, the Ring Nebula may still keep being described in terms of food.

"The nebula is not like a bagel, but rather, it's like a jelly doughnut," said C. Robert O'Dell of Vanderbilt University, who led the research team that compiled the photograph, "Because it's filled with material in the middle."

The blue gas seen in this new photograph of M57 is a football-shaped formation of helium gas reaching from one side of the ring to the other. The new photo from Hubble's Wide Field Camera Three also shows never-before-seen detail in the knotty, dark structures near the inner-most part of the ring. These spoke-like structures were formed when hot gas ejected by the dying star collided with cooler gas from a previous ejection.

"With Hubble's detail, we see a completely different shape than what's been thought about historically for this classic nebula," O'Dell said, "The new Hubble observations show the nebula in much clearer detail, and we see things are not as simple as we previously thought."

To create the photo, Hubble's view was combined with that from the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

The reason the nebula looks elliptical from Earth is because the object is orientated in such a way that its poles are nearly directly in line with our home world. The ring structure is like the outside of a glass as we stare down into it, appearing much darker than the clearer bottom of the glass.

M57 is the remains of a star which shed its out layer long ago, casting a gaseous shell into space, known as a planetary nebula, is it died. One day, the Sun will end its life in a similar manner, but because of its smaller mass, the nebula given off by our own home star in six billion years will not be as dramatic as M57. The Ring Nebula is believed to lie approximately 2,000 light years from Earth and was discovered in 1779.

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