Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) STScI-PRC07-33a
The colourful, intricate shapes in these NASA Hubble Space Telescope images reveal how the glowing gas ejected by dying Sun-like stars evolves dramatically over time.
These gaseous clouds, called planetary nebulae, are created when stars in the last stages of life cast off their outer layers of material into space. Ultraviolet light from the remnant star makes the material glow. Planetary nebulae last for only 10,000 years, a fleeting episode in the 10-billion-year lifespan of Sun-like stars.
The name planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets. They got their name because their round shapes resembled planets when seen through the small telescopes of the eighteenth century.
The Hubble images show the evolution of planetary nebulae, revealing how they expand in size and change temperature over time. A young planetary nebula, such as He 2-47, is small and dominated by relatively cool, glowing nitrogen gas. In the Hubble images, the red, green, and blue colours represent light emitted by nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen, respectively.
Over thousands of years, the clouds of gas expand away and the nebulae become larger. Energetic ultraviolet light from the star penetrates more deeply into the gas, causing the hydrogen and oxygen to glow more prominently, as seen near the center of NGC 5315. In the older nebulae, such as IC 4593, at bottom, left, and NGC 5307, at bottom, right, hydrogen and oxygen appear more extended in these regions, and red knots of nitrogen are still visible.
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