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Remarkable Optical Illusion Discovered in Space

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Whilst examining the details of a glorious photograph of the Ring Nebula captured in astonishing detail by the James Webb Space Telescope, scientist spotted a question mark.

Ring Nebula detail appearing to show a question mark
Credit: NASA/ESA

Seemingly asking "what's out there?", the cosmic question mark (circled in the photo), was photographed by pure chance, as the JWST was simply endeavouring to snap the Ring Nebula (below) and its expanding halo of gas which was ejected when a star died 4,000 years ago. At the very centre of the ring is a nascent white dwarf - the ultra-hot and dense stellar core left behind once a star’s fuel runs out.

White dwarfs are so hot that they radiate ultraviolet light and X-rays causing the encircling gas to fluoresce in a rainbow of colour.

The new image was taken by the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) - a joint collaboration between Nasa, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency - which is examining the cosmos a million miles from Earth. The JWST was launched on 25 December 2021 and its first image was released to the public in July 2022.

Professor Mike Barlow, the lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project, at University College London said: “The James Webb Space Telescope has provided us with an extraordinary view of the Ring Nebula that we’ve never seen before."

The Ring Nebula
Credit: NASA/ESA

“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.

“These images hold more than just aesthetic appeal; they provide a wealth of scientific insights into the processes of stellar evolution,” said Dr Cox, the co-lead scientist of the JWST Ring Nebula Imaging Project.

“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.”


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