The Ring Is A Lie: Ring Nebula Not A Ring After All
“Upon observing it, Charles Messier wrote: “it is very dull, but perfectly outlined; it is as large as Jupiter & resembles a planet which is fading.”
This is where the term planetary nebula comes from: where dying stars blow off their outer layers.
But despite looking very much like a ring to our eyes, the Ring Nebula is anything but.”
There are few objects in the night sky as famous or striking as the Ring Nebula. Discovered way back in 1779, its visual, ring-like shape can easily be seen with the human eye through even a modest telescope. But despite its appearances, it’s no ring at all. There’s a large, diffuse outer halo, a series of intricate, extended, knotty hydrogen structures, two lobes that extend even larger than the ring component but along our line-of-sight, and finally that bright, high-density donut that appears ring-like to our eyes. At just over 2,000 light years away, it is the closest planetary nebula to Earth, and the template for what we think will happen to our Solar System when the Sun dies.