The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) located in Paranal, Chile, has captured some breathtaking images over the years, with the latest being a symmetrical bubble of gas which looks like a giant psychedelic butterfly flitting across the universe.
This planetary nebula has never before been imaged in such detail, the ESO notes, “with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars.”
Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colours, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas, NGC 2899, appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new image from ESO’s VLT.
This object, located between 3000 and 6500 light-years away in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), has two central stars, which are believed to give it its nearly symmetric appearance, the ESO said.
“After one star reaches the end of its life and casts off its outer layers, the other star interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here.”
Only about 10–20% of planetary nebulae display this type of bipolar shape.
Despite having “planetary” in the name, planetary nebulae are not exactly planetary; they got their name from early astronomers who described them as planet-like in appearance.
In fact, they are what happens when giant, ancient stars give up the ghost, collapse, and emit expanding shells of gas, filled with heavy elements.
Like a dramatic stage death, space-style, the shells shine brilliantly for thousands of years before slowly fading away.
Currently, the ESO says, waves of gas extend up to two light-years from the object’s centre, with temperatures reaching upwards of 10,000 degrees.
That heat comes from the high degree of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas in blue.
Making use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations, spectacles like “butterflies” made of fiery gas are captured for all to see – giving us one more reason to marvel at the night skies.