The Hubble space telescope has captured incredible images of two planetary nebulae, huge clouds of gas and dust in space, illuminated by blasts from dying stars.
Previous research has suggested that our sun could one day become a planetary nebula in its death throes, billions of years from now.
The new images show two nearby planetary nebulae, NGC 6302, dubbed the Butterfly Nebula, and NGC 7027.
The chaotic blasts of hot gas show that NGC 7027 has recently “gone haywire”, with a new cloverleaf pattern lit up at its centre, the researchers said.
The Hubble team writes: “As nuclear fusion engines, most stars live placid lives for hundreds of millions to billions of years.
“But near the end of their lives they can turn into crazy whirligigs, puffing off shells and jets of hot gas.”
The Hubble images could allow researchers to understand the rapid changes inside the jets and gas bubbles blasting out of the stars at the centre of these nebulas.
“These new multi-wavelength Hubble observations provide the most comprehensive view to date of both of these spectacular nebulae,” said study leader Joel Kastner, of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”
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The images reveal in vivid detail how both nebulae are splitting themselves apart on extremely short timescales, allowing astronomers to see changes over the past couple of decades.
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.
NGC 6302, commonly known as the Butterfly Nebula, exhibits a distinct S-shaped pattern seen in reddish-orange in the image.
The researchers believe that the S-shaped pattern is created by singly ionised iron atoms, in collisions between different winds inside the nebulae.
"This is very rarely seen in planetary nebulae,” said team member Bruce Balick, of the University of Washington in Seattle. “Importantly, the iron emission image shows that fast, off-axis winds penetrate far into the nebula like tsunamis, obliterating former clumps in their paths and leaving only long tails of debris.”
Hubble’s image of NGC 7027 shows it had been slowly puffing away its mass in quiet, spherically symmetric or perhaps spiral patterns for centuries until relatively recently.
“Something recently went haywire at the very centre, producing a new cloverleaf pattern, with bullets of material shooting out in specific directions,” Kastner said.