This 1998 pic of the Ring Nebula entranced me when I was a child. A spooky cloud of gas and dust, measuring a whole light-year across…and to think that I only had the privilege of seeing a 2,000-year-old version of it, because the light took that long to travel over 120,000,000,000,000,000 miles of space! Rather than inducing existential angst, these numbers made me happy: the universe was so much bigger than whatever idiocy was going on in my life.
Now there is a new high resolution image of the Ring Nebula, and it gives us all the cold, ancient beauty we’ve come to expect from Hubble, as well as some new insights into the structure and formation of the nebula. The space in the middle, once thought to be almost empty, is webbed with low-density material, suggesting that the nebula is barrel-shaped rather than ring-shaped.