The Ring Nebula

Ring Nebula imaged by Hubble Space Telescope

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Astro Facts
Distance roughly 2300 light years
Size about 2.5 light years
Mass about that of our Sun
Age parent star, billions of years.
nebula, a few tens of thousands of years

The Ring Nebula is a gently expanding shell of gas ejected several tens of thousands of years ago by a dying star which in life was much like the Sun. Do not fear, the Sun has five billion years to go before its nuclear fuels are exhausted and it undergoes this process.

The Ring Nebula is one of the brightest instances of a so-called "Planetary Nebula". The only connection which such objects have with planets is that some of them have the appearance of the faint outer planets Uranus? or Neptune through a telescope, and were named as such by the discoverer of Uranus.

Mid-weight stars like our own Sun end their lives as these objects. As they exhaust their nuclear fuels, the cores shrink and heat, while their outer atmospheres grow enormously and cool. Pulsations begin, and over several thousands of years, the pulsations can drive off half of the mass of the star into a gently expanding shell.

The ejection of much of the star's mass returns a significant part of the star's nuclear ashes to space. Since the primordial material of the Universe consisted almost entirely of only hydrogen and helium, this process, together with the more violent supernovae explosion which only the heaviest stars undergo, seeds the Universe with the material for rocky planets -- and life. The nature of the dust, and the chemical composition of the ejecta is studied by several Cornell astronomers who have looked at such objects not only in our own galaxy but in neighboring ones.

Current Cornell Research

Astronomer Eric Lagadec studies the giant, pulsating stars which will soon end their lives as Planetary Nebulae. His interest is in the production of dust which returns to space some of the nuclear ashes generated during the stars' lives. Without previous generations of stars enriching the Universe with this material, the Earth -- and us -- could not have formed.
Astronomer Greg Sloan studies dust in the atmospheres of stars and in the space between the stars. Much of the dust comes from stars which are either ending their lives as planetary nebulae or about to do so. Greg played a significant role in the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, partially led by a Cornell team, which provided a new and more sensitive view of dust in the universe.

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