This close-up, visible-light view by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals new details of the Ring Nebula.
The object is tilted toward Earth so that astronomers see the ring face-on. The Hubble observations reveal that the nebula's shape is more complicated than astronomers thought. The blue gas in the nebula's center is actually a football-shaped structure that pierces the red doughnut-shaped material. Hubble also uncovers the detailed structure of the dark, irregular knots of dense gas embedded along the inner rim of the ring. The knots look like spokes in a bicycle. The Hubble images have allowed the research team to match up the knots with the spikes of light around the bright, main ring, which are a shadow effect.
The Ring Nebula is a well-known planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a Sun-like star. The tiny white dot in the center of the nebula is the star's hot core, called a white dwarf.
The nebula is about 2,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. The structure measures roughly one light-year across.
The Hubble observations were taken Sept. 19, 2011, by the Wide Field Camera 3. In the image, the deep blue color in the center represents helium; the cyan color of the inner ring is the glow of hydrogen and oxygen; and the reddish color of the outer ring is from nitrogen and sulfur.
Mouse over the image and scroll to zoom in and out, or use the blue buttons that appear in the lower right corner of the image.