Two newly released pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope document the beautiful birth of stars — and a star's equally beautiful death.
Let's start with the death: In the last stages of a sunlike star's 10 billion-year life, its hydrogen fuel runs out, and the stellar core begins to shrink and heat up. The star's outer layers are blown off and set aglow by the star's radiation, creating colorful shells of gas. When 18th-century astronomers looked at such stars through small telescopes, the extended shells looked like fuzzy planetary disks. That led observers to call the objects "planetary nebulae."
Even after astronomers understood what was really going on, the name stuck. Planetary nebulae that look like butterflies, cat's eyes, rings or glowing orbs rank among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring images in Hubble's collection. Three years ago, the Hubble team added a set of four to the collection, and this week the European Space Agency's Hubble team highlights yet another example of the genre.
The nebula's formal name is IRAS 19475+3119. It was imaged by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys back in 2003, and is actually classified as a "preplanetary nebula" because it's in the early stages of its blow-off. The newly released image has been compared to a "beautiful bird," and for that reason I'd propose that IRAS 19475+3119 be designated the Dying Swan Nebula. It also helps that the dying star lies in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), 15,000 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy.
O. De Marco / Macquarie U. / NASA / ESA
A colorful star-forming region is featured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467.
Now to the beautiful births: Today's image from the European Hubble team focuses on a huge star-forming region in the southern constellation Puppis, thought to lie 13,000 light-years from Earth. Hot young stars are embedded among the reddish clouds of hydrogen gas and dust like blue diamonds. Radiation from the stars is sculpting the clouds into strange shapes.
The bright, massive star just above the center of the image is particularly active. "Its fierce radiation has cleared the surrounding region, and some of the next generation of stars are forming in the denser regions around the edge," the Hubble team says.
The Advanced Camera for Surveys - the same camera that documented the Dying Star - sent back these observations back in 2004. The resulting photo is glorious enough, but the Hubble team has also put together a wide-field perspective on the scene as well as a zoomable version and a zoom-in video. For more scenes of starbirth, check out this picture from the European Southern Observatory, this roundup of more recent images from Hubble's camera and the scores of slideshows in our Space Gallery.