AUSTIN, TEXAS--Astronomers have snapped a dramatic new view of the Ring Nebula, the most famous glowing ring in space. The photo, released today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, shows how average stars like our sun die in some of the sharpest details yet seen.
The Ring Nebula, about 2000 light-years away from Earth and 2000 times wider than our solar system, is a "planetary nebula," a shell of gas puffed out by a star near the end of its life. Every astronomy textbook has a picture of the Ring Nebula--and instructs students that the object is spherical. But this image, says astronomer Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, "shows that the Ring Nebula is actually a cylinder of gas," viewed end-on.
The clue comes from dark globs of dense gas seen only at the nebula's edges, he says. If the nebula was a sphere, the globs would appear at the center as well. A companion star or large planet probably distorted the dying star, a bloated red giant, as it cast its gas shell into space thousands of years ago. The colors in the picture are close to what humans would see if the object were brighter, Bond says.
"As soon as I saw this picture, I thought, 'There's the cover of my next textbook,' " says astronomer Andrew Fraknoi of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California.