Astronomers investigating the Ring Nebula using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 have obtained the image above, the clearest and most detailed view yet of the structure, which is about a light year across. Further studies with ground-based telescopes show that not only is there material around the edges but also in the center, moving toward and away from us. And it's all surrounded by an outer halo.
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So actually the Ring Nebula is shaped like a football wrapped by a doughnut around its middle... inside a bubble.
"With Hubble's detail, we see a completely different shape than what's been thought about historically for this classic nebula," said team leader C. Robert O'Dell of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "The new Hubble observations show the nebula in much clearer detail, and we see things are not as simple as we previously thought."
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And even though the Ring Nebula may seem static and serene from our point of view, it's the result of a very catastrophic event - and it's still quite dynamic.
As vast shells of rapidly outward-expanding material slam into slower-moving material, they become ionized and glow brightly, creating the nebula as we see it. And all that stuff is still moving very quickly through space - over 43,000 mph (69,200 km/h)!
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According to the team, the material in the Ring Nebula will continue to expand for another 10,000 years, becoming fainter and fainter as it fades into interstellar space.
(I don't know about you, but donuts certainly don't last that long in my house.)
Read more and see hi-res images of the Ring Nebula on the NASA Hubble site and the ESA press release here.