NASA's James Webb Space Telescope spotted a detail that Hubble missed in the Ring Nebula.
A sneaky companion star could explain the mystery of the dying star's unusual rings.
It's another example of a planetary nebula's "breathtaking complexity," astronomer Roger Wesson said.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has done it again, spotting something that its predecessor, Hubble, couldn't see.
The Ring Nebula, an oblong-donut-shaped planetary nebula in the constellation Lyra, is a dying star expelling its outer layers one by one, 2,200 light-years away.
The bright ring surrounding it is composed of 20,000 clumps of hydrogen gas, each about the mass of our entire planet. At its core is a white dwarf, a star similar to our sun but that's much older and exhausted all its fuel.
"When we first saw the images, we were stunned by the amount of detail in them," Roger Wesson, an astronomy research associate at Cardiff University, who is working on these Ring Nebula images, said in a statement.
Even with an untrained eye, a quick glance at the two telescopes' snapshots of the Ring Nebula makes it obvious just how much more Webb's infrared gaze can capture.
Here's the old Hubble image from 2013.
And here's a new Webb image, from the camera on the telescope that captures light in near-infrared wavelengths. Check out the newly visible texture of the nebula's outer layers, and the spikes of light shooting out into space.
The detail is hauntingly beautiful. But for an astronomer, the new Webb images reveal crucial clues that could help solve a mystery about nebulae.
"Planetary nebulae were once thought to be simple, round objects with a single dying star at the center. They were named for their fuzzy, planet-like appearance through small telescopes," Wesson said. "Modern observations, though, show that most planetary nebulae display breathtaking complexity. It begs the question: how does a spherical star create such intricate and delicate non-spherical structures?"
Webb shows that the answer may be another star hidden in the folds of the nebula. The gravity of this star, though it probably isn't very massive, would affect the dying star at the center of the nebula and add complexity to the physics of its outer layers ejecting into space.
These findings are still in progress and have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Webb's infrared photo shows telltale arcs outside the main ring
In the outer edges of the main ring, the Webb image picked up about 10 concentric arcs. They're evenly spaced and each may have formed every 280 years as the star at the center discarded its outer layers. But the dying star couldn't have created them on its own, scientists think.
The presence of the companion star helped fashion the shed atmosphere into the arcs. If confirmed, this companion star would be about the same distance from the dying star as Earth is from Pluto. "No previous telescope had the sensitivity and the spatial resolution to uncover this subtle effect," Wesson said.
Read the original article on Business Insider