Ring Nebula's true shape revealed: A distorted jelly doughnut

Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to nebulae.

From here on Earth, the well-studied Ring Nebula looks like a fiery, slightly misshapen ring with fuzzy edges and a hole in its center.


But using data collected from the Hubble Telescope, and land-based observations, astronomers have revealed that the shape of the Ring Nebula is more complex than previously thought.

It turns out that what looks like an empty space in the center of the nebula is actually filled with low-density material that stretches toward Earth and away from us.

If we could rotate the nebula 90 degrees and look at it from the side, we would see that the ring is thick--kind of like a doughnut--and that wedged inside its hole is another shape that looks like a cross between a rugby ball and a Tylenol gel capsule.

The Ring Nebula is what is known as a planetary nebula--which simply means it has a roughly circular appearance when seen from low-level telescopes. It was formed when a dying star that was once similar to our sun started pushing its outer layers into space.

The dying star is at the center of the nebula, and is on its way to becoming a white dwarf--a small, dense, hot ember. It is the same fate that awaits our sun as well.

The Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57, was discovered in 1779, when astronomers spotted it while tracking the path of a comet that was moving through the constellation Lyra.

Because it is one of the brightest nebula in the sky, and a relatively close roughly 2,000 light years away, it has been well studied ever since.

And that only makes it more amazing that more than 200 years later, astronomers can continue to unlock its secrets.

Scroll down to see a video describing the discovery.

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