Butterfly and Jewel Bug: NASA's stunning new Hubble images reveal stars gone ha...

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Home / More Lifestyle / Butterfly and Jewel Bug: NASA’s stunning new Hubble images reveal stars gone haywire

“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. Astronomers have employed Hubble’s full range of imaging capabilities to dissect such crazy fireworks happening in two nearby young planetary nebulas,” says the NASA website about its latest find. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has demonstrated its full range of imaging capabilities with two new images of planetary nebulae. The images depict two nearby young planetary nebulae, NGC 6302, dubbed the Butterfly Nebula, and NGC 7027. Both are among the dustiest planetary nebulae known and both contain unusually large masses of gas, which made them an interesting pair for study in parallel by a team of researchers. According to the NASA website, NGC 7027 resembles a jewel bug, an insect with a brilliantly colourful metallic shell.

The researchers have found unprecedented levels of complexity and rapid changes in the jets and gas bubbles blasting off of the stars at the centre of each nebula. Hubble is now allowing the researchers to converge on an understanding of the mechanisms underlying this chaos.

NASA images of the two nebulae.

NASA images of the two nebulae. ( NASA )

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged these objects before, but not for many years and never before with the Wide Field Camera 3 instrument across its full wavelength range -- making observations in near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light. “When I looked in the Hubble archive and realized no one had observed these nebulas with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 across its full wavelength range, I was floored. These new multi-wavelength Hubble observations provide the most comprehensive view to date of both of these spectacular nebulae,” said Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York, leader of the new study. “As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” he added. “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,” said Kastner.

The new Hubble 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. In particular, Hubble’s broad multi-wavelength views of each nebula are helping the researchers to trace the histories of shock waves in them. Such shocks are typically generated when fresh, fast stellar winds slam into and sweep up more slowly expanding gas and dust ejected by the star in its recent past, generating bubble-like cavities with well-defined walls.

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.

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.

Another related, popular hypothesis is that the smaller star of the pair may merge with its bloated, more rapidly evolving stellar companion. This very short-lived “common envelope” binary star configuration can also generate wobbling jets, forming the trademark bipolar outflows commonly seen in planetary nebulae. However, the suspect companion stars in these planetary nebulae have not been directly observed. Researchers suggest this may be because these companions are next to, or have already been swallowed by, far larger and brighter red giant stars.

NGC 6302, commonly known as the Butterfly Nebula, exhibits a distinct S-shaped pattern seen in reddish-orange in the image. Imagine a lawn sprinkler spinning wildly, throwing out two S-shaped streams. In this case, it is not water in the air, but gas blown out at high speed by a star. And the “S” only appears when captured by the Hubble camera filter that records near-infrared emission from singly ionised iron atoms. This iron emission is indicative of energetic collisions between both slow and fast winds, which is most commonly observed in active galactic nuclei and supernova remnants.

“This is very rarely seen in planetary nebulae,” explained 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.”

Recently, NGC 7027’s central star was identified in a new wavelength of light — near-ultraviolet — for the first time by using Hubble’s unique capabilities. The near-ultraviolet observations will help reveal how much dust obscures the star and how hot the star really is.

Recently, NGC 7027’s central star was identified in a new wavelength of light — near-ultraviolet — for the first time by using Hubble’s unique capabilities. The near-ultraviolet observations will help reveal how much dust obscures the star and how hot the star really is. ( NASA )

The accompanying image of NGC 7027, which resembles a jewel bug, indicates that 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 explained.

(With inputs from NASA and ANI)

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