NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:
It was noticed hundreds of years ago by stargazers who could not understand its unusual shape. It looked like a ring on the sky. Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) may be the most famous celestial circle. We now know what it is, and that its iconic shape is due to our lucky perspective. The recent mapping of the expanding nebula's 3-D structure, based in part on this clear Hubble image,indicates that the nebula is a relatively dense, donut-like ring wrapped around the middle of an (American) football-shaped cloud of glowing gas. Our view from planet Earth looks down the long axis of the football, face-on to the ring. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star, now a tiny pinprick of light seen at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,500 light-years away.