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These new Hubble images are absolutely bonkers

Published Jun 19th, 2020 11:18PM EDT
hubble photos

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  • The Hubble Space Telescope captured new images of familiar planetary nebulae using a different camera for the first time.
  • The result is a stunning glimpse of both NGC 7027 and the Butterfly Nebula, NGC 6302, both of which are in the midst of stellar death.
  • Hubble has viewed these nebulae before but never with this type of imaging tool, and these are two of the most detailed images of their respective nebulae ever captured by the space agencies.

Our star, the Sun, is pretty special. It’s the reason we’re here, after all, and scientists are working hard to unlock its many mysteries. That being said, it’s a little bit, well, boring. Well, perhaps not boring, but it’s certainly not as interesting the stars in a pair of photos just released by NASA and the European Space Agency. The images, which were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, show two planetary nebulae in the midst of some very interesting activity.

The nebulae, NGC 7027 and NGC 6302 (nicknamed the Butterfly Nebula for obvious reasons), began with dying stars. The stars, belching out gas and material with incredible energy, create gorgeous patterns when viewed from afar, and Hubble captured them in all their glory.

As the official Hubble website explains, the space telescope has targeted both of these nebulae before, but these images are unique in that they were shot with the spacecraft’s Wide Field Camera 3, using “its full wavelength range.” As a result, the images are particularly spectacular and incredibly high in detail. But what exactly are we looking at here?

Researchers suspect that at the heart of each nebula were two stars orbiting around each other. Evidence for such a central ‘dynamic duo’ comes from the bizarre shapes of these nebulas. Each has a pinched, dusty waist and polar lobes or outflows, as well as other, more complex symmetrical patterns.

So, we’re actually looking at the still-dying remains of a system of two stars rather than one, as in our own solar system. Scientists have known about binary stars for a while now, and it would make sense that these systems would produce unique effects when one or both of the stars begins to lose its “cool,” so to speak.

A leading theory for the generation of such structures in planetary nebulae is that the mass-losing star is one of two stars in a binary system. The two stars orbit one another closely enough that they eventually interact, producing a gas disc around one or both stars. The disc then launches jets that inflate polar-directed lobes of outflowing gas.

That’s pretty incredible, and we just so happen to be at the right distance and the right point in time to be able to observe these two nebulae producing some truly stunning fireworks.