Hubble Captures Stars Going Out in Style

Sep 11, 2007
Hubble Captures Stars Going Out in Style
Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The colorful, intricate shapes in these NASA Hubble Space Telescope images reveal how the glowing gas ejected by dying Sun-like stars evolves dramatically over time.

These gaseous clouds, called planetary nebulae, are created when stars in the last stages of life cast off their outer layers of material into space. Ultraviolet light from the remnant star makes the material glow. Planetary nebulae last for only 10,000 years, a fleeting episode in the 10-billion-year lifespan of Sun-like stars.

The name planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets. They got their name because their round shapes resembled planets when seen through the small telescopes of the eighteenth century.

The Hubble images show the evolution of planetary nebulae, revealing how they expand in size and change temperature over time. A young planetary nebula, such as He 2-47, at top, left, for example, is small and is dominated by relatively cool, glowing nitrogen gas. In the Hubble images, the red, green, and blue colors represent light emitted by nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, respectively.

Over thousands of years, the clouds of gas expand away and the nebulae become larger. Energetic ultraviolet light from the star penetrates more deeply into the gas, causing the hydrogen and oxygen to glow more prominently, as seen near the center of NGC 5315. In the older nebulae, such as IC 4593, at bottom, left, and NGC 5307, at bottom, right, hydrogen and oxygen appear more extended in these regions, and red knots of nitrogen are still visible.

These four nebulae all lie in our Milky Way Galaxy. Their distances from Earth are all roughly the same, about 7,000 light-years. The snapshots were taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 in February 2007. Like snowflakes, planetary nebulae show a wide variety of shapes, indicative of the complex processes that occur at the end of stellar life.

He 2-47, at top, left, is dubbed the "starfish" because of its shape. The six lobes of gas and dust, which resemble the legs of a starfish, suggest that He 2-47 puffed off material at least three times in three different directions. Each time, the star fired off a narrow pair of opposite jets of gas. He 2-47 is in the southern constellation Carina.

NGC 5315, the chaotic-looking nebula at top, right, reveals an x-shaped structure. This shape suggests that the star ejected material in two different outbursts in two distinct directions. Each outburst unleashed a pair of diametrically opposed outflows. NGC 5315 lies in the southern constellation Circinus.

IC 4593, at bottom, left, is in the northern constellation Hercules.

NGC 5307, at bottom, right, displays a spiral pattern, which may have been caused by the dying star wobbling as it expelled jets of gas in different directions. NGC 5307 resides in the southern constellation Centaurus.

Source: Space Telescope Science Institute

Explore further: Hubble view: Wolf-Rayet stars, intense and short-lived

Related Stories

What is a terrestrial planet?

Jul 02, 2015

In studying our solar system over the course of many centuries, astronomers learned a great deal about the types of planets that exist in our universe. This knowledge has since expanded thanks to the discovery ...

What is the biggest planet in the solar system?

Jun 25, 2015

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant of Jupiter. Between it's constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its Giant ...

Jupiter's movements made way for Earth

Jun 23, 2015

There's something about our solar system that appears to be unusual. For some reason, most of our bigger planets are far away from our host star, while closer in are smaller, rocky worlds, including Earth ...

VLA reveals 'bashful' black hole in neighboring galaxy

Jun 17, 2015

Thanks to the extraordinary sensitivity of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), astronomers have detected what they believe is the long-sought radio emission coming from a supermassive black hole at ...

The difference between asteroids and meteorites

Jun 03, 2015

Asteroids, meteors, and meteorites … It might be fair to say these rocks from space inspire both wonder and fear among us Earthlings. But knowing a bit more about each of them and how they differ may eliminate ...

The dreadful beauty of Medusa

May 20, 2015

Astronomers using ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile have captured the most detailed image ever taken of the Medusa Nebula. As the star at the heart of this nebula made its transition into retirement, it ...

Recommended for you

Hubble view: Wolf-Rayet stars, intense and short-lived

5 hours ago

This NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Hubble Space Telescope picture shows a galaxy named SBS 1415+437 (also called SDSS CGB 12067.1), located about 45 million light-years from Earth. SBS 1415+437 is a Wolf-Rayet ...

NASA image: Stellar sparklers that last

7 hours ago

While fireworks only last a short time here on Earth, a bundle of cosmic sparklers in a nearby cluster of stars will be going off for a very long time. NGC 1333 is a star cluster populated with many young ...

Light echo helps researchers map out parts of galaxy

11 hours ago

Thousands of years before humans invented agriculture, a bright burst of X-rays left the dense neutron star Circinus X-1, located in the faint Southern constellation Circinus. A year and a half ago, those ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.