Enjoy two brilliantly colorful views of distant nebulae, from Hubble

Is Earth getting you down these days? Then take a break and look to the stars for a while.

A pair of newly released images from the Hubble Space Telescope afford us Earthlings impressive views of two distant celestial bodies. They’re both shots of planetary nebulae, and each is brimming with otherworldly color and light.

Don’t be fooled by the name. “Planetary nebulae” are just like any other nebula: a region of dust and gas that serves as a breeding ground for new stars. The “planetary” in the name that identifies these two (among others) dates back to their discovery by early astronomers, who named them for their round shape.

The new photos show us views of NGC 6302, nicknamed the Butterfly Nebula (below; you can probably guess where the name comes from); and NGC 7027, the Jewel Bug Nebula (above).

NGC 6302, the Butterfly Nebula, is not actually a gigantic space bug, fear not.

Image: NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

An article accompanying the release of the new Hubble images notes that while both nebulae have been captured in images before, it hasn’t happened for a long time. This is also the first time we’re seeing them through the lens of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 – which means the images cover a wide swath of the visual spectrum, from “near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light.”

You know it’s cool stuff when the scientists receiving the new material get excited.

“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, who led the new study. “As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

These nebulae are particularly noteworthy because of how fast (relatively speaking) they’re breaking up. Astronomers have been able to observe changes to each celestial body in the span of only a couple decades. What we see as pretty colors and trippy patterns actually offer researchers a sort of roadmap, allowing them to trace the history of nebula-altering shockwaves.

It is believed that these stellar formations form around a “heart” that consists of two stars in orbit around one another. That movement is what supposedly causes the unusual shape of each nebula.

In the Butterfly Nebula image, the vaguely S-shaped strip of red and orange, which comes from the infrared end of the spectrum, is actually ionized iron atoms. This, in an example of how researchers use the visuals to chart a history, is the result of “energetic collisions between slow and fast winds” in outer space.

Meanwhile, the Jewel Bug Nebula’s concentric circles suggest that the nebula has been slowly breaking apart – “puffing away its mass,” the article reads – until recently (again, in relative terms, since even “rapid”: changes on this scale take a long time). 

As Kastner explained: “Something recently went haywire at the very center, producing a new cloverleaf pattern, with bullets of material shooting out in specific directions.”

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