"I am reminded of the jellyfish exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- beautiful things floating in water, except this one is in space," said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of the WISE mission at UCLA, and a co-author of a paper on the findings, reported in the Astronomical Journal.
The object, known as NGC 1514 and sometimes the "Crystal Ball" nebula, belongs to a class of objects called planetary nebulae, which form when dying stars toss off their outer layers of material. Ultraviolet light from a central star, or in this case a pair of stars, causes the gas to fluoresce with colorful light. The result is often beautiful -- these objects have been referred to as the butterflies of space.
NGC 1514 was discovered in 1790 by Sir William Herschel, who noted that its "shining fluid" meant that it could not be a faint cluster of stars, as originally suspected. Herschel had previously coined the term planetary nebulae to describe similar objects with circular, planet-like shapes.
Planetary nebulae with asymmetrical wings of nebulosity are common. But nothing like the newfound rings around NGC 1514 had been seen before. Astronomers say the rings are made of dust ejected by the dying pair of stars at the center of NGC 1514. This burst of dust collided with the walls of a cavity that was already cleared out by stellar winds, forming the rings.
"I just happened to look up one of my favorite objects in our WISE catalogue and was shocked to see these odd rings," said Michael Ressler, a member of the WISE science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and lead author of the Astronomical Journal paper. Ressler first became acquainted with the object years ago while playing around with his amateur telescope on a desert camping trip. "It's funny how things come around full circle like this."
WISE was able to spot the rings for the first time because their dust is being heated and glows with the infrared light that WISE can detect. In visible-light images, the rings are hidden from view, overwhelmed by the brightly fluorescing clouds of gas.