NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured a side view of a galaxy photobombing a planetary nebula.

A version of the Southern Ring Nebula captured by JWST's Nircam is visible on the left and by MIRI on the right.

The Southern Ring Nebula captured by JWST’s Nircam (left) and by MIRI (right)Paola Rosa-Aquino/NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

NASA on Tuesday released two images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope of the South Ring Nebula, a giant cloud of dust and gas 2,000 light-years from Earth.

Webb’s infrared vision, which helps him see through the nebula’s cosmic dust, also revealed something that hadn’t been seen before: a side view of a distant galaxy lurking in the background of the photo.

That bluish streak in this close-up image is a boon to the galaxy, Webb scientists said Tuesday.

The bluish streak in this close-up of the Southern Ring Nebula is an edge-on galaxy.Paola Rosa-Aquino/NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI

“I made a bet that said, ‘It’s part of the nebula,'” Karl Gordon, a NASA astronomer, said during the image reveal. “I lost the bet because we then took a closer look at both the Nircam and MIRI images and it’s clearly a galaxy from the side.” As Webb looks at the edge of the galaxy, it appears like a long, bluish thin line in the top left of the image. From this perspective, astronomers can study how stars are distributed in a galaxy.

Webb scientists have yet to provide additional information about the galaxy that photobombed the Southern Ring Nebula. “Wow. Wow. That. This near-infrared image is — wow,” said Alex Lockwood, a project scientist, as she shared the two new images of the nebula on Tuesday.

southern ring nebula infrared bubbles of colorful gas and dust orbit two stars

The Southern Ring Nebula, imaged by Webb in mid-infrared light, formed from the remains of a dying star.NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Webb, often referred to as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was launched on December 25, 2021 after more than two decades of development. Since then, the $10 billion telescope has traveled more than 1 million miles from Earth and is now stationed in a gravitationally stable orbit, collecting infrared light. By collecting infrared light, invisible to the human eye, Webb is able to penetrate cosmic dust and see far into the past, to the first 400 million years after the Big Bang.

To demonstrate the telescope’s capabilities and show that the telescope is finally operational, NASA unveiled its first set of full-color images. The powerful telescope captured two different views of the Southern Ring Nebula, both in mid-infrared and near-infrared light.

The Southern Ring or “Eight Burst” nebula is a vibrant shroud of gas and dust being blasted into space by a dying star.

“As the star dies, it begins to tremble in its last death throes. It pulses after the pictures are unveiled. “So you see what the star was doing just before it created this planetary nebula. I find it fascinating because it’s like geological layers and you can see the story of its final moments.”

side-by-side images of a bubbling nebula with arrows pointing to the stars in the center

Hubble’s image of the Southern Ring Nebula (left) has only one center light, while JWST (right) clearly shows two stars.The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA); NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

The new images not only show this dying star in more detail, but also revealed a second star gravitationally bound to it that was previously unseen. Astronomers said that studying the once-hidden stars closely will help them understand how they shape the cloud of gas and dust.

At the weekend, the JWST team started its first year of normal scientific operations. “Today, the Webb Mission is open for science business,” said Michelle Thaller, associate director of science communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, adding, “And the best is yet to come.”

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