The Southern Ring Nebula is a striking example of a bipolar planetary nebula, seen very nearly along the axis. Planetary nebulae result from the death of low-mass stars, and their shaping mechanisms have long been somewhat mysterious. In this image from JWST, a binary system is visible at the center of the nebula, which may provide the shaping mechanism for this object. Comparison with the HST image show that the binary star at the center was invisible before JWST took this image.
Most of the carbon in their bodies once passed through a planetary nebula like this one, as the carbon was lost from the star that fused it. Later, that carbon wound up in the cloud from which our solar system formed, so these objects have a personal relevance to our own existence.
The colors in the JWST image are not “true-color”, and this is perhaps a good image to show to initiate that conversation--why do astronomers make the color choices they do, and do the colors actually mean anything at all? (Sometimes it’s just because the person making the image liked those colors…but yes, the colors still have meaning.)
Supporting material in the texts and online: This image provides a great opportunity to talk to students about why astronomers use telescopes that observe at different wavelengths to explore different parts of the universe. You might reference this image in the chapters on Telescopes, or the Interstellar Medium. Other connected material appears in:
Exploration: Evolution of Low-Mass Stars
Process of Science Assignment: Low mass life cycle
Interactive Simulations: H-R Diagram
Astrotours: H-R Diagram
Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy Workbook, Activity 21: Understanding the Evolution of the Sun explores the life and death of low-mass stars.