UCL Astrophysics Group


James Webb Space Telescope captures stunning images of the Ring Nebula

3 August 2023

Breath-taking new images of the iconic Ring Nebula in Lyra (Messier 57), have been recorded by the JWST, showcasing the nebula's intricate and ethereal beauty in unprecedented detail, by an international team of astronomers led by our very own Prof. Mike Barlow.

Ring Nebula

The images, released today by an international team of astronomers led by Professor Mike Barlow (Astrophysics, UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Dr Nick Cox (ACRI-ST, France), provide scientists and the public with new and mesmerizing views of this celestial wonder.

For many sky enthusiasts, the Ring Nebula is a well-known object that is visible all summer long and that is located in the constellation Lyra. A small telescope will already reveal the characteristic donut-like structure of glowing gas that gave the Ring Nebula its name.

It is a planetary nebula, objects that are the colourful remnants of dying stars that have thrown out much of their mass at the end of their lives. The Ring Nebula’s distinctive structure and its vibrant colors have long captivated the human imagination. The stunning visuals captured by the JWST offer an unparalleled opportunity to study and understand the complex processes that shaped this cosmic masterpiece.

Professor Mike Barlow, the lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project, expressed excitement about the findings: “The James Webb Space Telescope has provided us with an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we've never seen before.

“The high-resolution images not only showcase the intricate details of the nebula's expanding shell but also reveal the inner region around the central white dwarf in exquisite clarity.

“We are witnessing the final chapters of a star's life, a preview of the Sun’s distant future so to speak, and JWST's observations have opened a new window into understanding these awe-inspiring cosmic events. We can use the Ring Nebula as our laboratory to study how planetary nebulae form and evolve."

The Ring Nebula's stunning features are a testament to the stellar life cycle. Approximately 2,600 light-years away from Earth, the nebula was born from a dying star that expelled its outer layers into space. What makes these nebulae truly breath-taking is their variety of shapes and patterns, that often include delicate, glowing rings, expanding bubbles or intricate, wispy clouds.

These patterns are the consequence of the complex interplay of different physical processes that are not well understood yet. Radiation from the hot central star now lights up these layers. Just like fireworks, different chemical elements in the nebula emit light of specific colors. This then results in exquisite and colourful objects, and furthermore allows astronomers to study the chemical evolution of these objects in detail.

"These images hold more than just aesthetic appeal; they provide a wealth of scientific insights into the processes of stellar evolution. By studying the Ring Nebula with JWST, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the life cycles of stars and the elements they release into the cosmos," adds Dr Cox, the co-lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project.

These images have been captured by JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Later this year further images of the Ring Nebula will become available from the JWST Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which contains both a camera and a spectrometer, providing detailed longer wavelength images.

The international research team is composed of researchers from the UK, France, Canada, USA, Sweden, Spain, Brazil, Ireland and Belgium and are analyzing these images.

The James Webb Space Telescope, a joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), has proven to be a game-changer in astronomy. Its capabilities go beyond what was possible with previous space telescopes, allowing scientists to peer deeper into the cosmos and explore new frontiers of the universe.



  • JWST/NIRcam composite image of the Ring Nebula. The image clearly shows the main ring, surrounded by a faint halo and with many delicate structures. The interior of the ring is filled with hot gas. The star which ejected all this material is visible at the very centre. It is extremely hot, with a temperature in excess of 100,000 degrees. The nebula was ejected only about 4000 years ago
  • Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA