Smoke Signals in Space
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Smoke Signals in Space

August 9, 2011
The hazy and aptly named Fine Ring Nebula, shown here, is an unusual planetary nebula. Planetary nebulae form when some dying stars, having expanded into a red giant phase, expel a shell of gas as they evolve into white dwarfs. Most planetary nebulae are either spherical or elliptical in shape, or bipolar (featuring two symmetric lobes of material).

But the Fine Ring Nebula — captured here by the ESO Faint Object Spectrograph and Camera mounted on the New Technology Telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile — looks like an almost perfect circular ring. Astronomers believe that some of these more unusually shaped planetary nebulae are formed when the progenitor star is actually a binary system. The interaction between the primary star and its orbiting companion shapes the ejected material.

The stellar object at the center of the Fine Ring Nebula is indeed thought to be a binary system, orbiting with a period of 2.9 days. Observations suggest that the binary pair is almost perfectly face-on from our vantage point, implying that the planetary nebula's structure is aligned in the same way. We are looking down on a torus (doughnut shape) of ejected material, leading to the strikingly circular ring shape in the image.

Planetary nebulae are shaped by the complex interplay of many physical processes. Not only can these celestial objects be admired for their beauty, but the study of precisely how they form their striking shapes is a fascinating topic in astronomical research.

This image was made using multiple filters: light observed through B and O-III filters is shown in blue, V is shown in green, R is shown in orange, and H-alpha in red. The image is approximately 200 arcseconds across.

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