Hubble captures new breathtaking images of planetary nebulae

Hyperaxion Jun 21, 2020

The space telescope has made detailed records of the NGC 6302 nebula, also called the Butterfly Nebula, and NGC 702. The images will enable new studies on these impressive phenomena.

There are many breathtaking images made by the Hubble Space Telescope since it came into operation in 1990. The most recent were released on June 18: unpublished images of two planetary nebulae, the NGC 6302 (also known as the Butterfly Nebula) and NGC 7027.

Hubble captures new breathtaking images of planetary nebulae
(Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner / RIT).

According to NASA, the images revealed details never seen before of the complexity and rapid changes taking place in the stars at the center of these nebulae. “These new multi-wavelength Hubble observations provide the most comprehensive view to date of both of these spectacular nebulas,” said Joel Kastner, of the Rochester Institute of Technology in the United States, and leader of the study. “As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

The images captured in many light spectra reveal in detail how both nebulae are rapidly dividing and how they have changed in recent decades. “The nebula NGC 7027 shows emission at an incredibly large number of different wavelengths, each of which highlights not only a specific chemical element in the nebula, but also the significant, ongoing changes in its structure,” explains Kastner.

The NGC 6302 Nebula, also known as the Butterfly Nebula.
The NGC 6302 Nebula, also known as the Butterfly Nebula. (Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner / RIT).

Another study that astronomers are doing based on the images is on the history of shock waves in these nebulae. According to NASA, these shocks happen when stellar winds slowly sweep away the gas and dust ejected by the star in its recent past. The result of this process are cavities that look like bubbles with well-defined walls.

The researchers suspect that at the center of both nebulae there are – or have been – two stars orbiting each other. This assumption is due to the “bizarre” shapes, as the American space agency puts it, of these nebulae. The theory behind this idea is that one of the stars of this supposed binary system is losing mass. When orbiting close to each other, the stars eventually interact, producing a disc of gas around them. This disc causes materials to be ejected in opposite directions.

The NGC 7027 Nebula. (Credit: NASA, ESA and J. Kastner / RIT).

Once one of the stars is “devoured” by the other, stellar material is also ejected and ends up creating a symmetrical pattern – like the one that gives the butterfly shape to NGC 6302. “The hypothesis of merging stars seems the best and simplest explanation for the features seen in the most active and symmetric planetary nebulas,” said Bruce Balick, from the University of Washington in Seattle, who also participated in the research.

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