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Search Results for "planetary nebula"




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Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 November 7 - The Cats Eye Nebula in Optical and X-ray
Explanation: To some it looks like a cat's eye. To others, perhaps like a giant cosmic conch shell. It is actually one of brightest and most highly detailed planetary nebula known, composed of gas expelled in the brief yet glorious phase near the end of life of a Sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the outer circular concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. The formation of the beautiful, complex-yet-symmetric inner structures, however, is not well understood. The featured image is a composite of a digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image with X-ray light captured by the orbiting Chandra Observatory. The exquisite floating space statue spans over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, humanity may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 October 14 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, toward the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. A total of 90 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this expansive view of the nebula. Combining narrow band image data from emission lines of hydrogen atoms in red and oxygen atoms in blue-green hues, it shows remarkable details of the Helix's brighter inner region about 3 light-years across. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 August 18 - Rings Around the Ring Nebula
Explanation: The Ring Nebula (M57), is more complicated than it appears through a small telescope. The easily visible central ring is about one light-year across, but this remarkably deep exposure - a collaborative effort combining data from three different large telescopes - explores the looping filaments of glowing gas extending much farther from the nebula's central star. This composite image includes red light emitted by hydrogen as well as visible and infrared light. The Ring Nebula is an elongated planetary nebula, a type of nebula created when a Sun-like star evolves to throw off its outer atmosphere to become a white dwarf star. The Ring Nebula is about 2,500 light-years away toward the musical constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 August 17 - M57: The Ring Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial circle. Its classic appearance is understood to be due to our own perspective, though. The recent mapping of the expanding nebula's 3-D structure, based in part on this clear Hubble image,indicates that the nebula is a relatively dense, donut-like ring wrapped around the middle of a (American) football-shaped cloud of glowing gas. The view from planet Earth looks down the long axis of the football, face-on to the ring. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star, now a tiny pinprick of light seen at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,500 light-years away.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 July 12 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: What will become of our Sun? The first hint of our Sun's future was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky -- and visible toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, featured here in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. We now know that in about 6 billion years, our Sun will shed its outer gases into a planetary nebula like M27, while its remaining center will become an X-ray hot white dwarf star. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science, though. Even today, many things remain mysterious about planetary nebulas, including how their intricate shapes are created.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 April 25 - Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star featured here at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2021 March 26 - The Medusa Nebula
Explanation: Braided and serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula's popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. The Medusa's transforming star is the faint one near the center of the overall bright crescent shape. In this deep telescopic view, fainter filaments clearly extend above and right of the bright crescent region. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 October 16 - Planetary Nebula Abell 78
Explanation: Planetary nebula Abell 78 stands out in this colorful telescopic skyscape. In fact the colors of the spiky Milky Way stars depend on their surface temperatures, both cooler (yellowish) and hotter (bluish) than the Sun. But Abell 78 shines by the characteristic emission of ionized atoms in the tenuous shroud of material shrugged off from an intensely hot central star. The atoms are ionized, their electrons stripped away, by the central star's energetic but otherwise invisible ultraviolet light. The visible blue-green glow of loops and filaments in the nebula's central region corresponds to emission from doubly ionized oxygen atoms, surrounded by strong red emission from electrons recombining with hydrogen atoms. Some 5,000 light-years distant toward the constellation Cygnus, Abell 78 is about three light-years across. A planetary nebula like Abell 78 represents a very brief final phase in stellar evolution that our own Sun will experience ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 September 13 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured here, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousands of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause and shape planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 August 23 - The Helix Nebula from Blanco and Hubble
Explanation: How did a star create the Helix nebula? The shapes of planetary nebula like the Helix are important because they likely hold clues to how stars like the Sun end their lives. Observations by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and the 4-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile, however, have shown the Helix is not really a simple helix. Rather, it incorporates two nearly perpendicular disks as well as arcs, shocks, and even features not well understood. Even so, many strikingly geometric symmetries remain. How a single Sun-like star created such beautiful yet geometric complexity is a topic of research. The Helix Nebula is the nearest planetary nebula to Earth, lies only about 700 light years away toward the constellation of Aquarius, and spans about 3 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 August 14 - NGC 5189: An Unusually Complex Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Why is this nebula so complex? When a star like our Sun is dying, it will cast off its outer layers, usually into a simple overall shape. Sometimes this shape is a sphere, sometimes a double lobe, and sometimes a ring or a helix. In the case of planetary nebula NGC 5189, however, besides an overall "Z" shape (the featured image is flipped horizontally and so appears as an "S"), no such simple structure has emerged. To help find out why, the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope has observed NGC 5189 in great detail. Previous findings indicated the existence of multiple epochs of material outflow, including a recent one that created a bright but distorted torus running horizontally across image center. Hubble results appear consistent with a hypothesis that the dying star is part of a binary star system with a precessing symmetry axis. NGC 5189 spans about three light years and lies about 3,000 light years away toward the southern constellation of the Fly (Musca).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 July 21 - Iron in the Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Can stars, like caterpillars, transform themselves into butterflies? No, but in the case of the Butterfly Nebula -- it sure looks like it. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years and its estimated surface temperature exceeds 200,000 degrees, C, the dying central star of NGC 6302, the featured planetary nebula, has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in visible and ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope and is reprocessed here to show off the remarkable details of the complex planetary nebula, highlighting in particular light emitted by iron, shown in red. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius). Planetary nebulas evolve from outer atmospheres of stars like our Sun, but usually fade in about 20,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 June 30 - Bright Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 from Hubble
Explanation: What created this unusual planetary nebula? NGC 7027 is one of the smallest, brightest, and most unusually shaped planetary nebulas known. Given its expansion rate, NGC 7027 first started expanding, as visible from Earth, about 600 years ago. For much of its history, the planetary nebula has been expelling shells, as seen in blue in the featured image. In modern times, though, for reasons unknown, it began ejecting gas and dust (seen in red) in specific directions that created a new pattern that seems to have four corners. These shells and patterns have been mapped in impressive detail by recent images from the Wide Field Camera 3 onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. What lies at the nebula's center is unknown, with one hypothesis holding it to be a close binary star system where one star sheds gas onto an erratic disk orbiting the other star. NGC 7027, about 3,000 light years away, was first discovered in 1878 and can be seen with a standard backyard telescope toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 June 7 - Halo of the Cat's Eye
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its haunting symmetries are seen in the very central region of this stunning false-color picture, processed to reveal the enormous but extremely faint halo of gaseous material, over three light-years across, which surrounds the brighter, familiar planetary nebula. Made with data from the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands, the composite picture shows extended emission from the nebula. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a Sun-like star. Only much more recently however, have some planetaries been found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier active episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2020 February 16 - NGC 2392: Double Shelled Planetary Nebula
Explanation: To some, this huge nebula resembles a person's head surrounded by a parka hood. In 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered this unusual planetary nebula: NGC 2392. More recently, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged the nebula in visible light, The featured image of the nebula shows gas clouds so complex they are not fully understood. NGC 2392 is a double-shelled planetary nebula, with the more distant gas having composed the outer layers of a Sun-like star only 10,000 years ago. The outer shell contains unusual light-year long orange filaments. The inner filaments visible are being ejected by strong wind of particles from the central star. The NGC 2392 Nebula spans about 1/3 of a light year and lies in our Milky Way Galaxy, about 3,000 light years distant, toward the constellation of the Twins (Gemini).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2019 December 3 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: Is this what will become of our Sun? Quite possibly. The first hint of our Sun's future was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, featured here in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2019 September 29 - MyCn 18: The Engraved Hourglass Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Do you see the hourglass shape -- or does it see you? If you can picture it, the rings of MyCn 18 trace the outline of an hourglass -- although one with an unusual eye in its center. Either way, the sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one featured here. Pictured, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the hourglass. The unprecedented sharpness of the Hubble images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process that are helping to resolve the outstanding mysteries of the complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulas like MyCn 18.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2019 May 1 - The Cat's Eye Nebula in Optical and X-ray
Explanation: To some it looks like a cat's eye. To others, perhaps like a giant cosmic conch shell. It is actually one of brightest and most highly detailed planetary nebula known, composed of gas expelled in the brief yet glorious phase near the end of life of a Sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the outer circular concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. The formation of the beautiful, complex-yet-symmetric inner structures, however, is not well understood. The featured image is a composite of a digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image with X-ray light captured by the orbiting Chandra Observatory. The exquisite floating space statue spans over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, humanity may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2019 March 2 - NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. The Hubble image data is reprocessed here, showing off the remarkable details of the complex planetary nebula. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2019 February 13 - The Helix Nebula in Hydrogen and Oxygen
Explanation: Is the Helix Nebula looking at you? No, not in any biological sense, but it does look quite like an eye. The Helix Nebula is so named because it also appears that you are looking down the axis of a helix. In actuality, it is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry, including radial filaments and extended outer loops. The Helix Nebula (aka NGC 7293) is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The featured picture, taken in the light emitted by oxygen (shown in blue) and hydrogen (shown in red), was created from 74 hours of exposure over three months from a small telescope in a backyard of suburban Melbourne, Australia. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 June 10 - The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: To some, it may look like a cat's eye. The alluring Cat's Eye nebula, however, lies three thousand light-years from Earth across interstellar space. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 May 11 - NGC 1360: The Robin's Egg Nebula
Explanation: This pretty cosmic cloud lies some 1,500 light-years away, it shape and color reminiscent of a blue robin's egg. It spans about 3 light-years, nested securely within the boundaries of the southern constellation Fornax. Recognized as a planetary nebula, NGC 1360 doesn't represent a beginning though. Instead it corresponds to a brief and final phase in the evolution of an aging star. In fact, visible in the telescopic image the central star of NGC 1360 is known to be a binary star system likely consisting of two evolved white dwarf stars, less massive but much hotter than the Sun. Their intense and otherwise invisible ultraviolet radiation has stripped away electrons from the atoms in the surrounding gaseous shroud. The predominant blue-green hue of NGC 1360 seen here is the strong emission produced as electrons recombine with doubly ionized oxygen atoms.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 May 9 - The Red Rectangle Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: How was the unusual Red Rectangle nebula created? At the nebula's center is an aging binary star system that surely powers the nebula but does not, as yet, explain its colors. The unusual shape of the Red Rectangle is likely due to a thick dust torus which pinches the otherwise spherical outflow into tip-touching cone shapes. Because we view the torus edge-on, the boundary edges of the cone shapes seem to form an X. The distinct rungs suggest the outflow occurs in fits and starts. The unusual colors of the nebula are less well understood, however, and speculation holds that they are partly provided by hydrocarbon molecules that may actually be building blocks for organic life. The Red Rectangle nebula lies about 2,300 light years away towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). The nebula is shown here in great detail as recently reprocessed image from Hubble Space Telescope. In a few million years, as one of the central stars becomes further depleted of nuclear fuel, the Red Rectangle nebula will likely bloom into a planetary nebula.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 April 17 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. Its classic appearance is understood to be due to our own perspective, though. The recent mapping of the expanding nebula's 3-D structure, based in part on this clear Hubble image,indicates that the nebula is a relatively dense, donut-like ring wrapped around the middle of a (American) football-shaped cloud of glowing gas. The view from planet Earth looks down the long axis of the football, face-on to the ring. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star, now a tiny pinprick of light seen at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 January 9 - Bright Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 from Hubble
Explanation: It is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky -- what should it be named? First discovered in 1878, nebula NGC 7027 can be seen toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus) with a standard backyard telescope. Partly because it appears there as only an indistinct spot, it is rarely referred to with a moniker. When imaged with the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, however, great details are revealed. Studying Hubble images of NGC 7027 have led to the understanding that it is a planetary nebula that began expanding about 600 years ago, and that the cloud of gas and dust is unusually massive as it appears to contain about three times the mass of our Sun. Pictured here in assigned colors, the resolved, layered, and dust-laced features of NGC 7027 might remind sky enthusiasts of a familiar icon that could be the basis for an informal name. A leading previous suggestion was the Pillow Nebula, but please feel free to make new suggestions -- for example, in an online APOD discussion forum.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2018 January 3 - The Helix Nebula from CFHT
Explanation: Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of the Water Bearer (Aquarius) and spans about 2.5 light-years. The featured picture was taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) located atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, USA. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 October 28 - NGC 6369: The Little Ghost Nebula
Explanation: Wraithlike NGC 6369 is a faint apparition in night skies popularly known as the Little Ghost Nebula. It was discovered by 18th century astronomer Sir William Herschel as he used a telescope to explore the medicinal constellation Ophiucus. Herschel historically classified the round and planet-shaped nebula as a Planetary Nebula. But planetary nebulae in general are not at all related to planets. Instead they are gaseous shrouds created at the end of a sun-like star's life, the dying star's outer layers expanding into space while its core shrinks to become a white dwarf. The transformed white dwarf star, seen near the center, radiates strongly at ultraviolet wavelengths and powers the expanding nebula's glow. Surprisingly complex details and structures of NGC 6369 are revealed in this tantalizing image composed from Hubble Space Telescope data. The nebula's main round structure is about a light-year across and the glow from ionized oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms are colored blue, green, and red respectively. Over 2,000 light-years away, the Little Ghost Nebula offers a glimpse of the fate of our Sun, which could produce its own planetary nebula about 5 billion years from now.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 June 11 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 April 19 - The Red Spider Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of a binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula's walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of the Archer (Sagittarius). Its distance is not well known but has been estimated by some to be about 4,000 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 February 15 - The Calabash Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: Fast expanding gas clouds mark the end for a central star in the Calabash Nebula. The once-normal star has run out of nuclear fuel, causing the central regions to contract into a white dwarf. Some of the liberated energy causes the outer envelope of the star to expand. In this case, the result is a photogenic proto-planetary nebula. As the million-kilometer per hour gas rams into the surrounding interstellar gas, a supersonic shock front forms where ionized hydrogen and nitrogen glow blue. Thick gas and dust hide the dying central star. The Calabash Nebula, also known as the Rotten Egg Nebula and OH231.8+4.2, will likely develop into a full bipolar planetary nebula over the next 1000 years. The nebula, featured here, is about 1.4 light-years in extent and located about 5000 light-years away toward the constellation of Puppis.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 February 8 - The Butterfly Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up of the dying star's nebula was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope and is presented here in reprocessed colors. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 January 30 - The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: To some, it may look like a cat's eye. The alluring Cat's Eye nebula, however, lies three thousand light-years from Earth across interstellar space. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this digitally reprocessed Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2017 January 8 - IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula
Explanation: How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum comes to light when studying planetary nebulae like IC 4406. Evidence indicates that IC 4406 is likely a hollow cylinder, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder from the side. Were IC 4406 viewed from the top, it would likely look similar to the Ring Nebula. This representative-color picture is a composite made by combining images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2001 and 2002. Hot gas flows out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the planetary nebula's center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2016 November 2 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2016 September 20 - The Helix Nebula in Infrared
Explanation: What makes this cosmic eye look so red? Dust. The featured image from the robotic Spitzer Space Telescope shows infrared light from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation of the Water Carrier Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a Sun-like star. But the Spitzer data show the nebula's central star itself is immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could have been generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Had the comet-like bodies formed in the distant planetary system, they would have survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2016 July 24 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousands of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2016 July 3 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2016 May 28 - Cat's Eye Wide and Deep
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its more familiar outlines are seen in the brighter central region of the nebula in this impressive wide-angle view. But the composite image combines many short and long exposures to also reveal an extremely faint outer halo. At an estimated distance of 3,000 light-years, the faint outer halo is over 5 light-years across. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. More recently, some planetary nebulae are found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years. Visible on the left, some 50 million light-years beyond the watchful planetary nebula, lies spiral galaxy NGC 6552.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2015 June 12 - The Medusa Nebula
Explanation: Braided, serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula's popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away along the southern border of the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun, as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. An unrelated, bright, foreground star is near center in this close-up, telescopic view, while the Medusa's transforming central star is actually the dimmer star below center and toward the right-hand part of the frame. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2015 June 7 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2015 May 10 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Planetary Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the hourglass. The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process that are helping to resolve the outstanding mysteries of the complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulas.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2015 April 26 - Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2015 January 13 - The Soap Bubble Nebula
Explanation: Adrift in the rich star fields of the constellation Cygnus, this lovely, symmetric nebula was only recognized a few years ago and does not yet appear in some astronomical catalogs. In fact, amateur astronomer Dave Jurasevich identified it as a nebula on 2008 July 6 in his images of the complex Cygnus region that included the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888). He subsequently notified the International Astronomical Union. Only eleven days later the same object was independently identified by Mel Helm at Sierra Remote Observatories, imaged by Keith Quattrocchi and Helm, and also submitted to the IAU as a potentially unknown nebula. The nebula, appearing on the left of the featured image, is now known as the Soap Bubble Nebula. What is the newly recognized nebula? Most probably it is a planetary nebula, a final phase in the life of a sun-like star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 November 9 - The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: To some, it may look like a cat's eye. The alluring Cat's Eye nebula, however, lies three thousand light-years from Earth across interstellar space. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 October 12 - The Helix Nebula from Blanco and Hubble
Explanation: How did a star create the Helix nebula? The shapes of planetary nebula like the Helix are important because they likely hold clues to how stars like the Sun end their lives. Observations by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and the 4-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile, however, have shown the Helix is not really a simple helix. Rather, it incorporates two nearly perpendicular disks as well as arcs, shocks, and even features not well understood. Even so, many strikingly geometric symmetries remain. How a single Sun-like star created such beautiful yet geometric complexity is a topic of research. The Helix Nebula is the nearest planetary nebula to Earth, lies only about 700 light years away toward the constellation of Aquarius, and spans about 3 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 September 14 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 July 13 - Planetary Nebula NGC 2818 from Hubble
Explanation: NGC 2818 is a beautiful planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud of a dying sun-like star. It could well offer a glimpse of the future that awaits our own Sun after spending another 5 billion years or so steadily using up hydrogen at its core, and then finally helium, as fuel for nuclear fusion. Curiously, NGC 2818 seems to lie within an open star cluster, NGC 2818A, that is some 10,000 light-years distant toward the southern constellation Pyxis (the Compass). At the distance of the star cluster, the nebula would be about 4 light-years across. But accurate velocity measurements show that the nebula's own velocity is very different from the cluster's member stars. The result is strong evidence that NGC 2818 is only by chance found along the line of sight to the star cluster and so may not share the cluster's distance or age. The Hubble image is a composite of exposures through narrow-band filters, presenting emission from nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in the nebula as red, green, and blue hues.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 June 1 - Halo of the Cat's Eye
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its haunting symmetries are seen in the very central region of this stunning false-color picture, processed to reveal the enormous but extremely faint halo of gaseous material, over three light-years across, which surrounds the brighter, familiar planetary nebula. Made with data from the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands, the composite picture shows extended emission from the nebula. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. Only much more recently however, have some planetaries been found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier active episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 May 30 - Planetary Nebula Abell 36
Explanation: The gorgeous, gaseous shroud of a dying sunlike star, planetary nebula Abell 36 lies a mere 800 light-years away in the constellation of Virgo. At that distance it spans over 1.5 light-years in this sharp telescopic view. Shrugging off its outer layers, the nebula's central star is contracting and becoming hotter, evolving towards a final white dwarf phase. In fact, in Abell 36, the central star is estimated to have a surface temperature of over 73,000 K, compared to the Sun's present 6,000 K temperature. As a result, the intensely hot star is much brighter in ultraviolet light, compared to its visual appearance here. The invisible ultraviolet light ionizes hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the nebula and ultimately powers the beautiful visible light glow.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2014 January 10 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. A total of 28.5 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this deep view of the nebula. Combining narrow band image data from emission lines of hydrogen atoms in red and oxygen atoms in blue-green hues, it shows remarkable details of the Helix's brighter inner region, about 3 light-years across, but also follows fainter outer halo features that give the nebula a span of well over six light-years. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 December 5 - Planetary Nebula Abell 7
Explanation: Very faint planetary nebula Abell 7 is some 1,800 light-years distant, just south of Orion in planet Earth's skies in the constellation Lepus, The Hare. Surrounded by Milky Way stars and near the line-of-sight to distant background galaxies, its generally simple spherical shape, about 8 light-years in diameter, is outlined in this deep telescopic image. Within its confines are beautiful, more complex details enhanced by the use of narrowband filters. Emission from hydrogen and nitrogen is shown in reddish hues with oxygen emission mapped to a bluish-green color, giving Abell 7 a more natural appearance that would otherwise be much too faint to be appreciated by eye. A planetary nebula represents a very brief final phase in stellar evolution that our own Sun will experience 5 billion years hence, as the nebula's central, once sun-like star shrugs off its outer layers. Abell 7 itself is estimated to be 20,000 years old. Its central star is seen here as a fading white dwarf some 10 billion years old.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 September 15 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 August 26 - Bright Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 from Hubble
Explanation: It is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky -- what should it be named? First discovered in 1878, nebula NGC 7027 can be seen toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus) with a standard backyard telescope. Partly because it appears there as only an indistinct spot, it is rarely referred to with a moniker. When imaged with the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, however, great details are revealed. Studying Hubble images of NGC 7027 have led to the understanding that it is a planetary nebula that began expanding about 600 years ago, and that the cloud of gas and dust is unusually massive as it appears to contain about three times the mass of our Sun. Pictured above in assigned colors, the resolved, layered, and dust-laced features of NGC 7027 might remind sky enthusiasts of a familiar icon that could be the basis for an informal name. Please feel free to make suggestions -- some suggestions are being recorded, for example, in an online APOD discussion forum.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 June 7 - NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp and colorful close-up of the dying star's nebula was recorded in 2009 by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, installed during the final shuttle servicing mission. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 June 5 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. Its classic appearance is understood to be due to our own perspective, though. The recent mapping of the expanding nebula's 3-D structure, based in part on this clear Hubble image, indicates that the nebula is a relatively dense, donut-like ring wrapped around the middle of a football-shaped cloud of glowing gas. The view from planet Earth looks down the long axis of the football, face-on to the ring. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star, now a tiny pinprick of light seen at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. In the picture, the blue color in the center is ionized helium, the cyan color of the inner ring is the glow of hydrogen and oxygen, and the reddish color of the outer ring is from nitrogen and sulfur. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 May 21 - The Red Rectangle Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: How was the unusual Red Rectangle nebula created? At the nebula's center is an aging binary star system that surely powers the nebula but does not, as yet, explain its colors. The unusual shape of the Red Rectangle is likely due to a thick dust torus which pinches the otherwise spherical outflow into tip-touching cone shapes. Because we view the torus edge-on, the boundary edges of the cone shapes seem to form an X. The distinct rungs suggest the outflow occurs in fits and starts. The unusual colors of the nebula are less well understood, however, and speculation holds that they are partly provided by hydrocarbon molecules that may actually be building blocks for organic life. The Red Rectangle nebula lies about 2,300 light years away towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). The nebula is shown above in great detail as recently reprocessed image from Hubble Space Telescope. In a few million years, as one of the central stars becomes further depleted of nuclear fuel, the Red Rectangle nebula will likely bloom into a planetary nebula.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 April 9 - NGC 3132: The Southern Ring Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this reprocessed color picture, the hot purplish pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2013 March 13 - NGC 6751: The Glowing Eye Nebula
Explanation: Planetary nebulae can look simple, round, and planet-like in small telescopes. But images from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope have become well known for showing these fluorescent gas shrouds of dying Sun-like stars to possess a staggering variety of detailed symmetries and shapes. This composite color Hubble image of NGC 6751, the Glowing Eye Nebula, is a beautiful example of a classic planetary nebula with complex features. It was selected in April of 2000 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Hubble in orbit, but was reprocessed recently by an amateur as part of the Hubble Legacy program. Winds and radiation from the intensely hot central star (140,000 degrees Celsius) have apparently created the nebula's streamer-like features. The nebula's actual diameter is approximately 0.8 light-years or about 600 times the size of our Solar System. NGC 6751 is 6,500 light-years distant in the high-flying constellation of the Eagle (Aquila).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 December 19 - NGC 5189: An Unusually Complex Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Why is this nebula so complex? When a star like our Sun is dying, it will cast off its outer layers, usually into a simple overall shape. Sometimes this shape is a sphere, sometimes a double lobe, and sometimes a ring or a helix. In the case of planetary nebula NGC 5189, however, no such simple structure has emerged. To help find out why, the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope recently observed NGC 5189 in great detail. Previous findings indicated the existence of multiple epochs of material outflow, including a recent one that created a bright but distorted torus running horizontally across image center. Results appear consistent with a hypothesis that the dying star is part of a binary star system with a precessing symmetry axis. Given this new data, though, research is sure to continue. NGC 5189 spans about three light years and lies about 3,000 light years away toward the southern constellation of the Fly (Musca).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 October 30 - Planetary Nebula PK 164 31
Explanation: Is this what will become of our Sun? Quite possibly. The bubble of expanding gas pictured above is the planetary nebula PK 164 +31.1, the remnants of the atmosphere of a Sun-like star expelled as its supply of fusion-able core hydrogen became depleted. Visible near the center of the nebula is what remains of the core itself -- a blue-hot white dwarf star. This particularly photogenic planetary nebula shows intricate shells of gas likely expelled at different times toward the end the star's demise, and whose structure is not fully understood. This deep image of PK 164 +31.1 from the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain shows many other stars from our own Milky Way Galaxy as well as several galaxies far in the distance. PK 164 +31, also known as Jones-Emberson 1, lies about 1,600 light years away toward the constellation of the Wildcat (Lynx). Due to its faintness (magnitude 17) and low surface brightness, the object is only visible with a good-sized telescope. Although the expanding nebula will fade away over the next few thousand years, the central white dwarf may well survive for billions of years -- to when our universe may be a very different place.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 October 29 - The Red Spider Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of a binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula's walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of the Archer (Sagittarius). Its distance is not well known but has been estimated by some to be about 4,000 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 October 25 - The Medusa Nebula
Explanation: Braided, serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula's popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun, as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. The Medusa's transforming star is near the center of the overall bright crescent shape. In this deep telescopic view, fainter filaments clearly extend below and to the left of the bright crescent region. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 October 8 - Spherical Planetary Nebula Abell 39
Explanation: Ghostly in appearance, Abell 39 is a remarkably simple, spherical nebula about five light-years across. Well within our own Milky Way galaxy, the cosmic sphere is roughly 7,000 light-years distant toward the constellation Hercules. Abell 39 is a planetary nebula, formed as a once sun-like star's outer atmosphere was expelled over a period of thousands of years. Still visible, the nebula's central star is evolving into a hot white dwarf. Although faint, the nebula's simple geometry has proven to be a boon to astronomers exploring the chemical abundances and life cycles of stars. In this deep image recorded under dark night skies, very distant background galaxies can be found -- some visible right through the nebula itself.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 October 4 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. A total of 58 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this deep view of the nebula. Accumulating narrow band data from emission lines of hydrogen atoms in red and oxygen atoms in blue-green hues, it shows remarkable details of the Helix's brighter inner region, about 3 light-years across, but also follows fainter outer halo features that give the nebula a span of well over six light-years. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 September 15 - Ring Nebula Drawn
Explanation: A planetary nebula with a simple symmetry familiar to telescopic sky gazers, the Ring Nebula (M57) is some 2,000 light-years away in the musical constellation Lyra. Hints of changing colors and subtle details are brought out in this remarkable sketch of the cosmic ring. The sketch was made with 800x magnification and excellent seeing conditions directly at the eyepiece of a 40 inch reflecting telescope. Colored pencils on white paper were used to create the original drawing, shown here digitally scanned with an inverted palette applied. About one light-year across, the nebula is composed of outer layers expelled from a dying, once sun-like star. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas and powers the nebular glow. Ionized hydrogen adds a reddish tint. Ionized oxygen produces a characteristic blue-green color. Difficult to see under average conditions with small telescopes, the Ring Nebula's central star was visible at all times during the artist's study.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 August 31 - Halo of the Cat's Eye
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its haunting symmetries are seen in the very central region of this tantalizing image, processed to reveal the enormous but extremely faint halo of gaseous material, about 6 light-years across, which surrounds the brighter, familiar planetary nebula. Made with narrow and broadband data the composite picture shows the remarkably strong extended emission from twice ionized oxygen atoms in blue-green hues and ionized hydrogen and nitrogen in red. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. But recently many planetaries have been found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier active episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 August 26 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 April 20 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. Its classic appearance is understood to be due to perspective - our view from planet Earth looks down the center of a roughly barrel-shaped cloud of glowing gas. But expansive looping structures are seen to extend far beyond the Ring Nebula's familiar central regions in this intriguing composite of ground based and Hubble Space Telescope images with narrowband image data from Subaru. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. Ionized oxygen atoms produce the characteristic greenish glow and ionized hydrogen the prominent red emission. The central ring of the Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away. To accompany tonight's shooting stars it shines in the northern constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 January 31 - The Helix Nebula from the VISTA Telescope
Explanation: Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of the Water Bearer (Aquarius) and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken three colors on infrared light by the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2012 January 14 - NGC 6369: The Little Ghost Nebula
Explanation: This pretty planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 6369, was discovered by 18th century astronomer William Herschel as he used a telescope to explore the medicinal constellation Ophiucus. Round and planet-shaped, the nebula is also relatively faint and has acquired the popular moniker of Little Ghost Nebula. Planetary nebulae in general are not at all related to planets, but instead are created at the end of a sun-like star's life as its outer layers expand into space while the star's core shrinks to become a white dwarf. The transformed white dwarf star, seen near the center, radiates strongly at ultraviolet wavelengths and powers the expanding nebula's glow. Surprisingly complex details and structures of NGC 6369 are revealed in this tantalizing image composed from Hubble Space Telescope data. The nebula's main ring structure is about a light-year across and the glow from ionized oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms are colored blue, green, and red respectively. Over 2,000 light-years away, the Little Ghost Nebula offers a glimpse of the fate of our Sun, which could produce its own planetary nebula only about 5 billion years from now.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 December 27 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 November 13 - The Butterfly Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: Few butterflies have a wingspan this big. The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects, and NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the central star of this particular planetary nebula is exceptionally hot though -- shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This dramatically detailed close-up of the dying star's nebula was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope soon after it was upgraded in 2009. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 August 16 - Shapley 1: An Annular Planetary Nebula
Explanation: What happens when a star runs out of nuclear fuel? For stars about the mass of our Sun, the center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula, pictured above and designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring like structure. Although some of these nebulas appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our Solar System.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 August 7 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Planetary Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the hourglass. The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process that are helping to resolve the outstanding mysteries of the complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulas.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 June 26 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 April 24 - The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: Staring across interstellar space, the alluring Cat's Eye nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this sharp Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into the Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 April 7 - Planetary Nebula NGC 2438
Explanation: NGC 2438 is a planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud cast off by a dying sunlike star billions of years old whose central reservoir of hydrogen fuel has been exhausted. About 3,000 light-years distant it lies within the boundaries of the nautical constellation Puppis. Remarkably, NGC 2438 also seems to lie on the outskirts of bright, relatively young open star cluster M46. But this planetary nebula's central star is not only much older than the stars of M46, it moves through space at a different speed than the cluster stars. Distance estimates also place NGC 2438 closer than M46 and so the nebula appears in the foreground, only by chance along the line-of-sight to the young star cluster. This deep image of NGC 2438 highlights a halo of glowing atomic gas over 4.5 light-years across, extending beyond the nebula's brighter inner ring. Similar haloes have been found in deep images of other planetary nebulae, produced during the earlier active phases of their aging central stars.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 February 18 - Planetary Nebula Project
Explanation: Cast off by dying sunlike stars, planetary nebulae are a brief but glorious final phase of stellar evolution. The gaseous shrouds are ionized by an extremely hot central source, the shrinking core of a star running out of fuel for nuclear fusion. Shining in the cosmic night, their simple symmetries are fascinating and have inspired this planetary nebula poster project. In it, nine planetaries are displayed for comparison in a 3x3 grid. Of course, planetary nebula fans should be able to pick out the bright Messier objects M27 - the Dumbbell Nebula, M76 - the Little Dumbbell, and M57 - the Ring Nebula, as well as NGC 6543, aka the Cat's Eye Nebula. Lesser known nebulae include the Medusa and the Bug. All the images were made with detailed narrow band data and are shown at the same angular scale, spanning 20 arc minutes (1/3 degree). At that scale, the grey circle represents the apparent size of the Full Moon. These planetary nebulae hint at the fate of our own Sun as its core runs out of nuclear fuel in another 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2011 January 8 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. A total of 10 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this remarkably deep view of the nebula. It shows details of the Helix's brighter inner region, about 3 light-years across, but also follows fainter outer halo features that give the nebula a span of well over six light-years. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 November 3 - The Necklace Nebula
Explanation: The small constellation Sagitta sports this large piece of cosmic jewelry, dubbed the Necklace Nebula. The newly discovered example of a ring-shaped planetary nebula is about 15,000 light-years distant. Its bright ring with pearls of glowing gas is half a light-year across. Planetary nebulae are created by sun-like stars in a final phase of stellar evolution. But the Necklace Nebula's central star, near the center of a ring strongly tilted to our line of sight, has also been shown to be binary, a close system of two stars with an orbital period of just over a day. Astronomers estimating the apparent age of the ring to be around 5,000 years, also find more distant gas clouds perpendicular to the ring plane, seen here at the upper left and lower right. Those clouds were likely ejected about 5,000 years before the clouds forming the necklace. This false color image combines emission from ionized hydrogen in blue, oxygen in green, and nitrogen in red.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 October 21 - Methuselah Nebula MWP1
Explanation: The lovely, symmetric planetary nebula cataloged as MWP1 lies some 4,500 light-years away in the northern constellation Cygnus the Swan. One of the largest planetary nebulae known, it spans about 15 light-years. Based on its expansion rate the nebula has an age of 150 thousand years, a cosmic blink of an eye in the 10 billion year life of a sun-like star. But planetary nebulae represent a very brief final phase in stellar evolution, as the nebula's central star shrugs off its outer layers to become a hot white dwarf. In fact, planetary nebulae ordinarily only last for 10 to 20 thousand years. As a result, truly ancient MWP1 offers a beautiful challenge to astronomers studying the evolution of its central star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 June 14 - The Red Rectangle Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: How was the unusual Red Rectangle nebula created? At the nebula's center is an aging binary star system that surely powers the nebula but does not, as yet, explain its colors. The unusual shape of the Red Rectangle is likely due to a thick dust torus which pinches the otherwise spherical outflow into tip-touching cone shapes. Because we view the torus edge-on, the boundary edges of the cone shapes seem to form an X. The distinct rungs suggest the outflow occurs in fits and starts. The unusual colors of the nebula are less well understood, however, and current speculation holds that they are partly provided by hydrocarbon molecules that may actually be building blocks for organic life. The Red Rectangle nebula lies about 2,300 light years away towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). The nebula is shown above in unprecedented detail as captured recently by the Hubble Space Telescope. In a few million years, as one of the central stars becomes further depleted of nuclear fuel, the Red Rectangle nebula will likely bloom into a planetary nebula.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 June 12 - The Medusa Nebula
Explanation: Braided, serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula's popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun, as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. The Medusa's transforming star is near the center of the overall bright crescent shape. In this deep, wide telescopic view, fainter filaments clearly extend below and to the left of the bright crescent region. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 May 9 - Halo of the Cat's Eye
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its haunting symmetries are seen in the very central region of this stunning false-color picture, processed to reveal the enormous but extremely faint halo of gaseous material, over three light-years across, which surrounds the brighter, familiar planetary nebula. Made with data from the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands, the composite picture shows extended emission from the nebula. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. Only much more recently however, have some planetaries been found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier active episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 April 25 - Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2010 April 11 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 December 31 - Dust and the Helix Nebula
Explanation: Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. The eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star. But the Spitzer data show the nebula's central star itself is immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies would have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 December 27 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 December 22 - Planetary Systems Now Forming in Orion
Explanation: How do planets form? To help find out, the Hubble Space Telescope was tasked to take a detailed look at one of the more interesting of all astronomical nebulae, the Great Nebula in Orion. The Orion nebula, visible with the unaided eye near the belt in the constellation of Orion, is an immense nearby starbirth region and probably the most famous of all astronomical nebulas. Insets to the above mosaic show numerous proplyds, many of which are stellar nurseries likely harboring planetary systems in formation. Some proplyds glow as close disks surrounding bright stars light up, while other proplyds contain disks further from their host star, contain cooler dust, and hence appear as dark silhouettes against brighter gas. Studying this dust, in particular, is giving insight for how planets are forming. Many proplyd images also show arcs that are shock waves - fronts where fast moving material encounters slow moving gas. The Orion Nebula lies about 1,500 light years distant and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as our Sun.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 November 15 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: It looks like a ring on the sky. Hundreds of years ago astronomers noticed a nebula with a most unusual shape. Now known as M57 or NGC 6720, the gas cloud became popularly known as the Ring Nebula. It is now known to be a planetary nebula, a gas cloud emitted at the end of a Sun-like star's existence. As one of the brightest planetary nebula on the sky, the Ring Nebula can be seen with a small telescope in the constellation of Lyra. The Ring Nebula lies about 4,000 light years away, and is roughly 500 times the diameter of our Solar System. In this picture by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1998, dust filaments and globules are visible far from the central star. This helps indicate that the Ring Nebula is not spherical, but cylindrical.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 May 15 - M97: The Owl Nebula
Explanation: The Owl Nebula is perched in the sky about 2,600 light-years away toward the bottom of the Big Dipper's bowl. Also cataloged as M97, the 97th object in Messier's well-known list, its round shape along with the placement of two large, dark "eyes" do suggest the face of a staring owl. One of the fainter objects in Messier's catalog, the Owl Nebula is a planetary nebula, the glowing gaseous envelope shed by a dying sun-like star as it runs out of nuclear fuel. In fact, the Owl Nebula offers an example of the fate of our Sun as it runs out of fuel in another 5 billion years. As we see it, the nebula spans over 2 light-years making it roughly 2,000 times the diameter of Neptune's orbit. Beautiful to look at, this color image shows impressive details within the cosmic owl. The composite includes images made through narrow-band filters for a total of 24 hours of exposure time.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 March 12 - Thor's Helmet (NGC 2359) and Planetary Nebula
Explanation: At the right, Thor's Helmet (NGC 2359) seems to gaze across a lovely star field. The broad skyscape itself covers about 1.5 degrees or 3 full moons toward the constellation Canis Major. A close look at the lower left corner of the image might identify the object of the cosmic stare as a faint, round nebula. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor's Helmet is about 30 light-years across. The helmet is actually more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble's center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre- supernova stage of evolution. In contrast, the faint, round nebula is a planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud of a dying lower mass star. The distance to Thor's Helmet is estimated to be about 15,000 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 March 3 - The Helix Nebula from La Silla Observatory
Explanation: Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken by the Wide Field Imager on the 2.2-meter Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2009 January 22 - Planetary Nebula NGC 2818
Explanation: NGC 2818 is a beautiful planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud of a dying sun-like star. It could well offer a glimpse of the future that awaits our own Sun after spending another 5 billion years or so steadily using up hydrogen at its core, and then finally helium, as fuel for nuclear fusion. Curiously, NGC 2818 seems to lie within an open star cluster, NGC 2818A, that is some 10,000 light-years distant toward the southern constellation Pyxis (the Compass). At the distance of the star cluster, the nebula would be about 4 light-years across. But accurate velocity measurements show that the nebula's own velocity is very different from the cluster's member stars. The result is strong evidence that NGC 2818 is only by chance found along the line of sight to the star cluster and so may not share the cluster's distance or age. The Hubble image is a composite of exposures through narrow-band filters, presenting emission from nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in the nebula as red, green, and blue hues.

Editor's Note (Jan. 26, 2009): Thanks to Daniel Majaess (St. Mary's Univ., Halifax) for corrections.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 November 13 - A Bubble in Cygnus
Explanation: Adrift in the rich star fields of the constellation Cygnus, this lovely, symmetric bubble nebula was only recently recognized and may not yet appear in astronomical catalogs. In fact, amateur astronomer Dave Jurasevich identified it as a nebula on July 6 in his images of the complex Cygnus region that included the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888). He subsequently notified the International Astronomical Union. Only eleven days later the same object was independently identified by Mel Helm at Sierra Remote Observatories, imaged by Keith Quattrocchi and Helm, and also submitted to the IAU as a potentially unknown nebula. Their final composite image is seen here, including narrow-band image data that highlights the nebula's delicate outlines. What is the newly recognized bubble nebula? Like the Crescent Nebula itself, this cosmic bubble could be blown by winds from a massive Wolf-Rayet star, or it could be a spherically-shaped planetary nebula, a final phase in the life of a sun-like star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 September 4 - Spokes in the Helix Nebula
Explanation: At first glance, the Helix Nebula (aka NGC 7293), looks simple and round. But this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, produced near the end of the life of a sun-like star, is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry. Its extended loops and comet-shaped features have been explored in Hubble Space Telescope images. Still, a 16-inch diameter telescope and camera with broad and narrow band filters was used to create this sharp view of the Helix. The color composite also reveals the nebula's intriguing details, including light-year long, bluegreen radial stripes or spokes that give it the appearance of a cosmic bicycle wheel. The spoke features seem to indicate that the Helix Nebula is itself an old and evolved planetary nebula. The Helix is a mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 August 25 - NGC 7008: The Fetus Nebula
Explanation: Compact and round, NGC 7008 is recognized as a planetary nebula about 2,800 light-years distant in the nebula rich constellation of Cygnus. This impressive telescopic view shows off NGC 7008's remarkable colors and details by the skillful combination of broad band and narrow band images from two different telescopes with about 12 hours of total exposure time. The intriguing assortment of features within the nebula's approximately 1 light-year diameter suggest its popular name, the Fetus Nebula, but planetary nebulae are not associated with star birth. Instead, nebulae like NGC 7008 are produced during a brief phase that sun-like stars pass through toward the end of their lives. Ejecting their outer layers, the stars cool to eventually become white dwarf stars, like the star seen near the center of NGC 7008. This colorful image also includes an unrelated but still lovely gold and blue binary star system just below NGC 7008.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 August 4 - X-Rays from the Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Haunting patterns within planetary nebula NGC 6543 readily suggest its popular moniker -- the Cat's Eye nebula. Starting in 1995, stunning false-color optical images from the Hubble Space Telescope detailed the swirls of this glowing nebula, known to be the gaseous shroud expelled from a dying sun-like star about 3,000 light-years from Earth. This composite picture combines the latest Hubble optical image of the Cat's Eye with new x-ray data from the orbiting Chandra Observatory and reveals surprisingly intense x-ray emission indicating the presence of extremely hot gas. X-ray emission is shown as blue-purple hues superimposed on the nebula's center. The nebula's central star itself is clearly immersed in the multimillion degree, x-ray emitting gas. Other pockets of x-ray hot gas seem to be bordered by cooler gas emitting strongly at optical wavelengths, a clear indication that expanding hot gas is sculpting the visible Cat's Eye filaments and structures. Gazing into the Cat's Eye, astronomers see the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 July 27 - IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula
Explanation: How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum comes to light when studying planetary nebulae like IC 4406. Evidence indicates that IC 4406 is likely a hollow cylinder, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder from the side. Were IC 4406 viewed from the top, it would likely look similar to the Ring Nebula. This representative-color picture is a composite made by combining images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2001 and 2002. Hot gas flows out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the planetary nebula's center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2008 April 13 - Curious Cometary Knots in the Helix Nebula
Explanation: What causes unusual knots of gas and dust in planetary nebulas? Seen also in the Ring Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula and NGC 2392, the knots' existence was not initially predicted and their origins are still not well understood. Pictured above is a fascinating image of the Helix Nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope showing tremendous detail of its mysterious gaseous knots. The above cometary knots have masses similar to the Earth but have radii typically several times the orbit of Pluto. One hypothesis for the fragmentation and evolution of the knots includes existing gas being driven out by a less dense but highly energetic stellar wind of the central evolving star. The Helix Nebula is the closest example of a planetary nebula created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 December 28 - A Beautiful Boomerang Nebula
Explanation: This symmetric cloud dubbed the Boomerang Nebula was created by a high-speed wind of gas and dust blowing from an aging central star at speeds of nearly 600,000 kilometers per hour. The rapid expansion has cooled molecules in the nebular gas to about one degree above absolute zero - colder than even the cosmic background radiation - making it the coldest known region in the distant Universe. Shining with light from the central star reflected by dust, the frigid Boomerang Nebula is believed to be a star or stellar system evolving toward the planetary nebula phase. This Hubble image was recorded using polarizing filters (analogous to polaroid sunglasses) and color coded by the angle associated with the polarized light. The gorgeous result traces the small dust particles responsible for polarizing and scattering the light. The Boomerang Nebula spans about one light year and lies about 5,000 light years away toward the constellation Centaurus.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 November 23 - The Medusa Nebula
Explanation: Braided, serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula's popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun, as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. The Medusa's transforming hot central star is visible in the detailed color image as the small blue star within the upper half of the overall bright crescent shape. Fainter filaments clearly extend above and to the left of the bright crescent region. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 October 14 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 August 3 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. Nearly 11 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this remarkably deep view of the nebula. It shows details of the Helix's brighter inner region, about 3 light-years across, but also follows fainter outer halo features that give the nebula a span of well over six light-years. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 June 29 - Cat's Eye Wide and Deep
Explanation: The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its more familiar outlines are seen in the brighter central region of this impressive wide-angle view. But the composite image also combines many short and long exposures to reveal the nebula's extremely faint halo. At an estimated distance of 3,000 light-years, the faint outer halo is over 5 light-years across. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. More recently, some planetary nebulae are found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years. Visible on the right, some 50 million light-years beyond the Cat's Eye, lies spiral galaxy NGC 6552.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 May 13 - The Cat's Eye Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: Staring across interstellar space, the alluring Cat's Eye nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. A classic planetary nebula, the Cat's Eye (NGC 6543) represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula's dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Seen so clearly in this sharp Hubble Space Telescope image, the truly cosmic eye is over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into the Cat's Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 February 23- Dust and the Helix Nebula
Explanation: Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. The eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star. But the Spitzer data show the nebula's central star itself is immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2007 February 15 - Planetary Nebula NGC 2440
Explanation: Planetary nebula NGC 2440 has an intriguing bow-tie shape in this stunning view from space. The nebula is composed of material cast off by a dying sun-like star as it enters its white dwarf phase of evolution. Details of remarkably complex structures are revealed within NGC 2440, including dense ridges of material swept back from the nebula's central star. Near the center of the view, the star itself is one of the hottest known, with a surface temperature of about 200,000 kelvins. About 4,000 light-years from planet Earth toward the nautical constellation Puppis, the nebula spans over a light-year and is energized by ultraviolet light from the central star. The false-color image was recorded earlier this month using the Hubble's Wide-Field Planetary Camera 2(WFPC2), demonstrating still impressive imaging capabilities following the failure of the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2006 November 12 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2006 July 9 - NGC 2392 Nebula from Hubble
Explanation: In 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered NGC 2392. From the ground, NGC 2392 resembles a person's head surrounded by a parka hood. In 2000, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged NGC 2392. From space, the nebula displays gas clouds so complex they are not fully understood. NGC 2392 is clearly a planetary nebula, and the gas seen above composed the outer layers of a Sun-like star only 10,000 years ago. The inner filaments visible above are being ejected by strong wind of particles from the central star. The outer disk contains unusual light-year long orange filaments.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2006 June 25 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: It looked like a ring on the sky. Hundreds of years ago astronomers noticed a nebula with a most unusual shape. Now known as M57 or NGC 6720, the gas cloud became popularly known as the Ring Nebula. It is now known to be a planetary nebula, a gas cloud emitted at the end of a Sun-like star's existence. As one of the brightest planetary nebula on the sky, the Ring Nebula can be seen with a small telescope in the constellation of Lyra. The Ring Nebula lies about 4,000 light years away, and is roughly 500 times the diameter of our Solar System. In this recent picture by the Hubble Space Telescope, dust filaments and globules are visible far from the central star. This helps indicate that the Ring Nebula is not spherical, but cylindrical.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2005 July 28 - Spherical Planetary Nebula Abell 39
Explanation: Ghostly in appearance, Abell 39 is a remarkably simple, spherical nebula about five light-years across. Well within our own Milky Way galaxy, the cosmic sphere is roughly 7,000 light-years distant toward the constellation Hercules. Abell 39 is a planetary nebula, formed as a once sun-like star's outer atmosphere was expelled over a period of thousands of years. Still visible, the nebula's central star is evolving into a hot white dwarf. Although faint, the nebula's simple geometry has proven to be a boon to astronomers exploring the chemical abundances and life cycles of stars. In this deep image recorded under dark night skies, very distant background galaxies can be found -- some visible right through the nebula itself.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2005 June 12 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2005 June 3 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above, digitally sharpened, in three standard colors. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2005 May 1 - Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2005 February 6 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 December 29 - The Helix Nebula from Blanco and Hubble
Explanation: How did a star create the Helix nebula? The shapes of planetary nebula like the Helix are important because they likely hold clues to how stars like the Sun end their lives. Recent observations by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and the 4-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile, however, have shown the Helix is not really a simple helix. Rather, it incorporates two nearly perpendicular disks as well as arcs, shocks, and even features not well understood. Even so, many strikingly geometric symmetries remain. How a single Sun-like star created such beautiful yet geometric complexity is a topic of research. The Helix Nebula is the nearest planetary nebula to Earth, lies only about 700 light years away toward the constellation of Aquarius, and spans about 3 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 October 17 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 July 4 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. This planetary nebula's simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective -- our view from planet Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Astronomers of the Hubble Heritage Project produced this strikingly sharp image from Hubble Space Telescope observations using natural appearing colors to indicate the temperature of the stellar gas shroud. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Dark, elongated structures can also be seen near the nebula's edge. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 May 5 - NGC 6302: Big, Bright, Bug Nebula
Explanation: The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects, and NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the central star of this particular planetary nebula is exceptionally hot though -- shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. Above is a dramatically detailed close-up of the dying star's nebula recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is in the upper left corner of this view, nearly edge-on to the line-of-sight. Surprisingly, minerals including water ice, along with complex hydrocarbon molecules have been detected in this hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation Scorpius.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 February 7 - NGC 6369: The Little Ghost Nebula
Explanation: This pretty planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 6369, was discovered by 18th century astronomer William Herschel as he used a telescope to explore the medicinal constellation Ophiucus. Round and planet-shaped, the nebula is also relatively faint and has acquired the popular moniker of Little Ghost Nebula. Planetary nebulae in general are not at all related to planets, but instead are created at the end of a sun-like star's life as its outer layers expand into space while the star's core shrinks to become a white dwarf. The transformed white dwarf star, seen near the center, radiates strongly at ultraviolet wavelengths and powers the expanding nebula's glow. Surprisingly complex details and structures of NGC 6369 are revealed in this delightful color image composed from Hubble Space Telescope data. The nebula's main ring structure is about a light-year across and the glow from ionized oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms are colored blue, green, and red respectively. Over 2,000 light-years away, the Little Ghost Nebula offers a glimpse of the fate of our Sun, which should produce its own pretty planetary nebula only about 5 billion years from now.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2004 February 1 - M2-9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 September 13 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 July 25 - Dumbbell Nebula Halo
Explanation: In 1764, French astronomer Charles Messier sighted this gorgeous cosmic cloud which he described as an oval nebula without stars. Cataloged as M27, it is now popularly known as the Dumbbell Nebula, not for its substandard academic performance but for the elongated shape, like a bar with weights on each end, which first caught Messier's eye. This deep image of the bright planetary nebula does reveal the Dumbell's central star though, and an array of foreground and background stars toward the sly constellation Vulpecula. The picture is a composite that includes 8 hours of exposure through a filter designed to record only the light of hydrogen atoms, tracing the intricate details of the nebula's faint outer halo which spans light-years. Thought to be an example of the fate awaiting our own Sun 5 billion years hence, the Dumbbell Nebula is about 1,200 light-years away.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 June 14 - The Planetary Nebula Show
Explanation: What do the Owl, the Cat's Eye, the Ghost of Jupiter, and Saturn have in common? They're all planetary nebulae of course, glowing gaseous shrouds shed by dying sun-like stars as they run out of nuclear fuel. Beautiful to look at, the symmetric, planet-like shapes of these cosmic clouds, typically 1,000 times the size of our solar system, evoke their popular names. Flipping through digital pictures made by participants in the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center's Advanced Observing Program, astronomer Adam Block created this delightful animation. Ten different planetary nebula images are presented, each registered on the central star. In order, their catalog designations are NGC 1535, NGC 3242 (Ghost of Jupiter), NGC 6543 (Cat's Eye), NGC 7009 (Saturn Nebula), NGC 2438, NGC 6772, Abell 39, NGC 7139, NGC 6781, and M97 (Owl Nebula). This glorious final phase in the life of a star lasts only about 10,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 May 16 - A Tale of Two Nebulae
Explanation: This colorful telescopic view towards the northern constellation Lyra reveals dim outer regions around M57, popularly known as the Ring Nebula. While modern astronomers still refer to M57 as a planetary nebula, at one light-year across M57 is not a planet but the gaseous shroud of a dying sun-like star. Roughly the same apparent size as M57, the fainter, often overlooked barred spiral galaxy IC1296 is at the lower right and would have been referred to in the early 20th century as a spiral nebula. By chance the pair are in the same field of view, and while they appear to have similar sizes they are actually very far apart. M57 lies at a distance of a mere 2,000 light-years, well within our own Milky Way galaxy. Extragalactic IC1296 is more like 200,000,000 light-years distant or about 100,000 times farther away. Since they appear roughly similar in size, spiral nebula IC1296 must also be about 100,000 times larger than planetary nebula M57.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 May 10 - NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula
Explanation: Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is the closest example of a planetary nebula created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 650 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture is a composite of newly released images from the ACS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope and wide-angle images from the Mosaic Camera on the WIYN 0.9-m Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 April 9 - The Egg Nebula in Polarized Light
Explanation: Where is the center of the unusual Egg Nebula? Like a baby chick pecking its way out of an egg, the star in the center of the Egg Nebula is casting away shells of gas and dust as it slowly transforms itself into a white dwarf star. The Egg Nebula is a rapidly evolving pre-planetary nebula spanning about one light year toward the constellation of Cygnus. Thick dust, though, blocks the center star from view, while the dust shells further out reflect light from this star. Light vibrating in the plane defined by each dust grain, the central star, and the observer is preferentially reflected, causing an effect known as polarization. Measuring the orientation of the polarized light for the Egg Nebula gives clues to location of the hidden source. The above image taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope is false-color coded to highlight the orientation of polarization.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 March 22 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. This planetary nebula's simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective -- our view from planet Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Astronomers of the Hubble Heritage Project produced this strikingly sharp image from Hubble Space Telescope observations using natural appearing colors to indicate the temperature of the stellar gas shroud. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Dark, elongated structures can also be seen near the nebula's edge. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 February 20 - Cold Wind from the Boomerang Nebula
Explanation: A cold wind blows from the central star of the Boomerang Nebula. Seen here in a detailed false-color image recorded in 1998 by the Hubble Space Telescope, the nebula lies about 5,000 light-years away towards the grand southern constellation of Centaurus. The symmetric cloud appears to have been created by a high-speed wind of gas and dust blowing from an aging central star at speeds of nearly 600,000 kilometers per hour. This rapid expansion has cooled molecules in the nebular gas to about one degree above absolute zero - colder than even the cosmic background radiation - making it the coldest region observed in the distant Universe. Shining with light from the central star reflected by dust, the frigid Boomerang Nebula is believed to be a star or stellar system evolving toward the planetary nebula phase.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 February 11 - Dumbbell Nebula Close Up from Hubble
Explanation: What causes unusual knots of gas and dust in planetary nebulas? Seen previously in the Ring Nebula, the Helix Nebula, and NGC 2392, the knots' existence was not predicted previously and still not well understood. Pictured above is a newly released image of the Dumbbell Nebula by the Hubble Space Telescope showing details of its gaseous knots. Also visible are many bright young stars and dark sheets of interstellar dust. The Dumbbell Nebula, also known as M27, is a planetary nebula thought similar to what our Sun will become when it runs out of core fuel for nuclear fusion. Recent study of similar cometary knots indicates that they include concentrations of relatively cold molecular gas and that they change significantly as the planetary nebula ages.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2003 January 13 - The Dumbbell Nebula in Hydrogen and Oxygen
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of "annoying" diffuse objects not to be confused with "interesting" comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above, digitally sharpened, in three isolated colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 December 14 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 November 8 - NGC 6369: The Little Ghost Nebula
Explanation: This pretty planetary nebula, cataloged as NGC 6369, was discovered by 18th century astronomer William Herschel as he used a telescope to explore the constellation Ophiucus. Round and planet-shaped, the nebula is also relatively faint and has acquired the popular moniker of Little Ghost Nebula. Planetary nebulae in general are not at all related to planets, but instead are created at the end of a sun-like star's life as its outer layers expand into space while the star's core shrinks to become a white dwarf. The transformed white dwarf star, seen near the center, radiates strongly at ultraviolet wavelengths and powers the expanding nebula's glow. Surprisingly complex details and structures of NGC 6369 are revealed in this delightful color image composed from Hubble Space Telescope data. The nebula's main ring structure is about a light-year across and the glow from ionized oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen atoms are colored blue, green, and red respectively. Over 2,000 light-years away, the Little Ghost Nebula offers a glimpse of the fate of our Sun, which should produce its own pretty planetary nebula only about 5 billion years from now.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 August 7 - Gomez's Hamburger: A Proto Planetary Nebula
Explanation: What, in heaven, is that? Sometimes astronomers see things on the sky they don't immediately understand. In 1985 this happened to Arturo Gomez, and the object became known as Gomez's Hamburger for its distinctive yet familiar shape. After some investigation, the object was identified as a proto-planetary nebula, a gas cloud emitted by a Sun-like star just after its central hydrogen fuel has all been fused to helium. Gomez's Hamburger is on its way to becoming a full-fledged planetary nebula in a few thousand years. The light seen (the bun) is reflected by dust from the central star, although the star itself is obscured by a thick dust disk that runs across the middle (the patty). Gomez's Hamburger, pictured above in a recent image from the Hubble Space Telescope, is only a fraction of a light year across but located approximately 10,000 light years away towards the constellation of Sagittarius.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 July 31 - Henize 3-401: An Elongated Planetary Nebula
Explanation: How do dying stars eject their outer layers? Stars that create elegant planetary nebulas like Henize 3-401, pictured above, are not unusual, causing speculation that, one day, our own Sun may look like this. Henize 3-401 is one of the most elongated planetary nebulas yet discovered, a particularly odd feat for a seemingly round star. Perhaps, some astronomers hypothesize, the elongated shape gives a clue to the expulsion mechanism. Genesis hypotheses include that the outer layers of gas are funneled out by the star's own magnetic field, and that a second unseen star is somehow involved. After the gas disperses in a few thousand years, only a white dwarf star will remain. Henize 3-401 lies about 10,000 light years away toward the constellation of Carina.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 June 18 - IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula
Explanation: How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum comes to light when studying planetary nebulae like IC 4406. Evidence indicates that IC 4406 is likely a hollow cylinder, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder from the side. Were IC 4406 viewed from the top, it would likely look similar to the Ring Nebula. This representative-color picture is a composite made by combining images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope last June and this January. Hot gas flows out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the planetary nebula's center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 June 15 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the "hourglass". The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process and may help resolve the outstanding mystery of the variety of complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 May 12 - At the Edge of the Helix Nebula
Explanation: While exploring the inner edge of the Helix Nebula with the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, astronomers were able to produce this striking image - rich in details of an exotic environment. This planetary nebula, created near the final phase of a sun-like star's life, is composed of tenuous shells of gas ejected by the hot central star. The atoms of gas, stripped of electrons by ultraviolet radiation from the central star, radiate light at characteristic energies allowing specific chemical elements to be identified. In this image, emission from nitrogen is represented as red, hydrogen emission as green, and oxygen as blue. The inner edge of the Helix Nebula, also known as NGC 7293, is in the direction toward the central star, which is toward the upper right. Clearly visible near the inner edge are finger shaped cometary knots.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 March 24 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2002 January 6 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 October 28 - NGC 2346: A Butterfly-Shaped Planetary Nebula
Explanation: It may look like a butterfly, but it's bigger than our Solar System. NGC 2346 is a planetary nebula made of gas and dust that has evolved into a familiar shape. At the heart of the bipolar planetary nebula is a pair of close stars orbiting each other once every sixteen days. The tale of how the butterfly blossomed probably began millions of years ago, when the stars were farther apart. The more massive star expanded to encompass its binary companion, causing the two to spiral closer and expel rings of gas. Later, bubbles of hot gas emerged as the core of the massive red giant star became uncovered. In billions of years, our Sun will become a red giant and emit a planetary nebula - but probably not in the shape of a butterfly, because the Sun has no binary star companion.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 October 6 - Hen 1357: New Born Nebula
Explanation: This Hubble Space Telescope snapshot shows Hen-1357, the youngest known planetary nebula. Graceful, gentle curves and symmetry suggest its popular name - The Stingray Nebula. Observations in the 1970s detected no nebular material, but this image from March 1996 clearly shows the Stingray's emerging bubbles and rings of shocked and ionized gas. The gas is energized by the hot central star as it nears the end of its life, evolving toward a final white dwarf phase. The image also shows a companion star (at about 10 o'clock) within the nebula. Astronomers suspect that such companions account for the complex shapes and rings of this and many other planetary nebulae. This cosmic infant is about 130 times the size of our own solar system and growing. It is 18,000 light-years distant, in the southern constellation Ara.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 October 3 - The Planetary Nebula Show
Explanation: What do the Owl, the Cat's Eye, the Ghost of Jupiter, and Saturn have in common? They're all planetary nebulae of course(!), glowing gaseous shrouds shed by dying sun-like stars as they run out of nuclear fuel. Beautiful to look at, the symmetric, planet-like shapes of these cosmic clouds, typically 1,000 times the size of our solar system, evoke their popular names. Flipping through digital pictures made by participants in the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center's Advanced Observing Program, astronomer Adam Block created this delightful animation. Ten different planetary nebula images are presented, each registered on the central star. In order, their catalog designations are NGC 1535, NGC 3242 (Ghost of Jupiter), NGC 6543 (Cat's Eye), NGC 7009 (Saturn Nebula), NGC 2438, NGC 6772, Abell 39, NGC 7139, NGC 6781, and M97 (Owl Nebula). This glorious final phase in the life of a star lasts only about 10,000 years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 September 30 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This recently released false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 September 3 - The Making of the Rotten Egg Nebula
Explanation: Fast expanding gas clouds mark the end for a central star in the Rotten Egg Nebula. The once-normal star has run out of nuclear fuel, causing the central regions to contract into a white dwarf. Some of the liberated energy causes the outer envelope of the star to expand. In this case, the result is a photogenic proto- planetary nebula. As the million-kilometer per hour gas rams into the surrounding interstellar gas, a supersonic shock front forms where ionized hydrogen and nitrogen glow blue. The complex shock front had been hypothesized previously but never so clearly imaged. Thick gas and dust hide the dying central star. The Rotten Egg Nebula, also known as the Calabash Nebula and OH231.8+4.2, will likely develop into a full bipolar planetary nebula over the next 1000 years. The nebula, pictured above, is about 1.4 light-years in extent and located about 5000 light-years away toward the constellation of Puppis.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 July 29 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. This planetary nebula's simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective -- our view from planet Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Astronomers of the Hubble Heritage Project produced this strikingly sharp image from Hubble Space Telescope observations using natural appearing colors to indicate the temperature of the stellar gas shroud. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Dark, elongated structures can also be seen near the nebula's edge. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 July 24 - The Red Spider Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula's walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of Sagittarius. It's distance is not well known but estimated by some to be about 4000 light-years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 June 24 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 March 6 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of "annoying" diffuse objects not to be confused with "interesting" comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in representative colors. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 February 5 - Planetary Nebula Mz3: The Ant Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2001 January 23 - Spherical Planetary Nebula Abell 39
Explanation: One of the largest spheres in our Galaxy is giving valuable clues about the chemical composition of stars by its very shape. Planetary nebula Abell 39, now six light-years across, was once a sun-like star's outer atmosphere expelled thousands of years ago. The nearly perfect spherical nature of Abell 39 allows astronomers to accurately estimate how much relative material is actually absorbing and emitting light. Observations indicate that Abell 39 contains only about half of the oxygen found in the Sun, an intriguing but not surprising confirmation of the chemical differences between stars. The reason why the central star is slightly off center by 0.1 light-years is currently unknown. Abell 39 lies about 7000 light years away, although several galaxies millions of light years away can be seen through and around the nebula.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 December 17 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 September 7 - IC 418: The Spirograph Nebula
Explanation: What is creating the strange texture of IC 418? Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula for its resemblance to drawings from a cyclical drawing tool, planetary nebula IC 418 shows patterns that are not well understood. Perhaps they are related to chaotic winds from the variable central star, which changes brightness unpredictably in just a few hours. By contrast, evidence indicates that only a few million years ago, IC 418 was probably a well-understood star similar to our Sun. Only a few thousand years ago, IC 418 was probably a common red giant star. Since running out of nuclear fuel, though, the outer envelope has begun expanding outward leaving a hot remnant core destined to become a white-dwarf star, visible in the image center. The light from the central core excites surrounding atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. IC 418 lies about 2000 light-years away and spans 0.3 light-years across. This recently released false-color image taken from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals the unusual details.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 September 6 - Emerging Planetary Nebula CRL 618
Explanation: CRL 618 may look to some like an Olympian declaring victory. Only a few hundred years ago, however, CRL 618 appeared as a relatively modest red giant star. Since then it has run out of core material to fuse and so has started to become a planetary nebula. In its current proto-planetary nebula phase, CRL 618 is evolving quickly, expelling hot gasses in complex jets and rings moving outwards faster than 700,000 kilometers per hour. In a few thousand years, the glowing core of the cool red giant will be bare, revealing a hot white dwarf star. Much remains unknown about planetary nebulae formation, including details of how geometries like this form. Perhaps one day some part of this nebula will be able to declare victory - CRL 618 has an extraordinary abundance of carbon-chain molecules.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 August 28 - The Helix Nebula from CFHT
Explanation: One day our Sun may look like this. The Helix Nebula is the closest example of a planetary nebula created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies 450 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans 1.5 light-years. The above image was taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) located atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, USA. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows unusual gas knots of unknown origin.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 July 16 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: Except for the rings of Saturn, The Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. This planetary nebula's simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective -- our view from planet Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Astronomers of the Hubble Heritage Project produced this strikingly sharp image from Hubble Space Telescope observations using natural appearing colors to indicate the temperature of the stellar gas shroud. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Dark, elongated structures can also be seen near the nebula's edge. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Lyra.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 June 25 - Shapley 1: An Annular Planetary Nebula
Explanation: What happens when a star runs out of nuclear fuel? The center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula, designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring like structure. Although some of these nebulae appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our Solar System.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 June 4 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading White Dwarf. Astronomers have recently used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the "hourglass". The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process and may help resolve the outstanding mystery of the variety of complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: 2000 April 16 - IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula
Explanation: How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum came to light with the discovery of planetary nebulae like IC 4406. IC 4406 is most probably cylindrical, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder. Hot gas is known to be flowing out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the planetary nebula's center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: November 1, 1999 - The Rotten Egg Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Not all evolving stars eject gas clouds that look like people. OH231.8+4.2 was a star much like our Sun that ran out of nuclear fuel to fuse in its core. It has therefore entered the planetary nebula phase, where it throws off its outer atmosphere into space leaving a core that will become a white dwarf star. Every Sun-like star creates a different planetary nebula though, and OH231.8+4.2's looks eerily like a person! Spectacular jets of streaming gas can be seen in this recently released photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope. The gas cloud has been dubbed the Rotten Egg Planetary Nebula because it contains unusually high amounts of sulfur, an element that, when combined with other elements, can smell like a rotten egg. This young planetary nebula will likely change its appearance over the next few thousand years and eventually disperse.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: October 31, 1999 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals The Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution. On planet Earth, of course, cats and other creatures may be on the prowl tonight. Keep your eyes peeled and have a safe and happy Halloween!

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: October 12, 1999 - NGC 2346: A Butterfly Shaped Planetary Nebula
Explanation: It may look like a butterfly, but it's bigger than our Solar System. NGC 2346 is a planetary nebula made of gas and dust that has evolved into a familiar shape. At the heart of the bipolar planetary nebula is a pair of close stars orbiting each other once every sixteen days. The tale of how the butterfly blossomed probably began millions of years ago, when the stars were farther apart. The more massive star expanded to encompass its binary companion, causing the two to spiral closer and expel rings of gas. Later, bubbles of hot gas emerged as the core of the massive red giant star became uncovered. In billions of years, our Sun will become a red giant and emit a planetary nebula - but probably not in the shape of a butterfly, because the Sun has no binary star companion.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: September 22, 1999 - Halos Around the Ring Nebula
Explanation: What's happened to the Ring Nebula? The familiar Ring that can be seen with a small back-yard telescope takes on a new look when viewed in dim light. The above recently-released, false-color image taken by the giant Subaru Telescope shows details of giant halos of diffuse gas that are seen to envelop the entire structure. The Ring Nebula, also known as M57, is an elongated planetary nebula, a type of nebula that is created when a Sun-like star evolves to throw off its outer atmosphere and becomes a white dwarf. The Ring Nebula is about 2000 light-years away, and the main ring spans about one light-year. The origin and future evolution of the Ring Nebula's outer halos is still being investigated.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: June 22, 1999 - PKS285 02: A Young Planetary Nebula
Explanation: How do planetary nebulae acquire their exquisite geometrical shapes? To investigate this, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope to image several young planetary nebulae. These nebulae are the outer envelopes of stars like our Sun that have recently been cast away to space, leaving behind a core fading to become a white dwarf. In this photograph in red H-alphacarbon that composes humans is thought to be created by red giant stars and ejected into the cosmos in planetary nebulae like PKS285-02. The complexity of this nebula leads some astronomers to hypothesize that these shells were created by high-speed, collimated outflows during a late phase of this star's evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: March 21, 1999 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 27, 1998 - M2 9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: November 10, 1998 - NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula
Explanation: It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make NGC 3132 so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: November 1, 1998 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals The Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in this image are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: October 28, 1998 - NGC 6210: The Turtle in Space Planetary Nebula
Explanation: A Turtle in Space? Planetary nebula NGC 6210 may look like a giant space turtle, but it is actually much more massive and violent. Fortunately, this gas cloud in Hercules lies about 6500 light years away. NGC 6210 was investigated with the Hubble Space Telescope because it showed evidence of unusual relative abundances of nebular gas. The resulting detailed representative-color picture, above, shows jets of hot gas streaming through holes in an older, cooler shell of gas. The central star that created the planetary nebula is clearly visible in the center of the inset image. Analyses of data involving this recently released picture may help explain the origin of chemical abundances in this nebula and our Galaxy.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: October 13, 1998 - In the Center of the Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: Here's part of the Dumbbell Nebula that you can't see through binoculars. To see this, we suggest a sophisticated spectrograph attached to a telescope with an 8-meter aperture. Pictured above is the central part of the Dumbbell Nebula, also known as M27 and NGC 6853. The Dumbbell is a planetary nebula created by the aging bright star visible just right of center. The nebula, located in the constellation Vulpecula, is thousands of years old. Visible in this false-color photograph is glowing hydrogen gas (green) and enigmatical globules of dense molecular gas and dust (red).

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: August 9, 1998 - Shapley 1: An Annular Planetary Nebula
Explanation: What happens when a star runs out of nuclear fuel? The center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula, designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring like structure. Although some of these nebula appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our Solar System.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: June 2, 1998 - NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula
Explanation: The Butterfly Nebula is only thousands of years old. As a central star of a binary system aged, it threw off its outer envelopes of gas in a strong stellar wind. The remaining stellar core is so hot it ionizes the previously ejected gas, causing it to glow. The different colors of this planetary nebula are determined by small differences in its composition. This bipolar nebula will continue to shine brightly for only a few thousand more years, after which its central star will fade and become a white dwarf star. The above picture is one of the first ever taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT), a new 8.2-meter telescope located in Chile.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: May 18, 1998 - NGC 6369: A Donut Shaped Nebula
Explanation: Why isn't the star in the center of the nebula? NGC 6369 appears to be a fairly ordinary planetary nebula. It can be seen with a good telescope in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The gas expelled by the central star is bunched in the shape of a donut or cylinder. During the planetary nebula phase, the central star sheds its outer atmosphere as it is evolving to become a white dwarf star. The above image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. A closer look at NGC 6369 indicates that the central star is closer to a dimmer edge of the nebula than to the opposing brighter edge.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: May 4, 1998 - M57: The Ring Nebula
Explanation: It looked like a ring on the sky. Hundreds of years ago astronomers noticed a nebula with a most unusual shape. Now known as M57 or NGC 6720, the gas cloud became popularly known as the Ring Nebula. It is now know to be a planetary nebula, a gas cloud emitted at the end of a Sun-like star's existence. As one of the brightest planetary nebula on the sky, the Ring Nebula can be seen with a small telescope in the constellation of Lyra. The Ring Nebula lies about 4000 light years away, and is roughly 500 times the diameter of our Solar System. In this recent picture by the Hubble Space Telescope, dust filaments and globules are visible far from the central star. This helps indicate that the Ring Nebula is not spherical, but cylindrical. Perhaps the Ring Nebula would appear differently if viewed sideways.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: April 27, 1998 - IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula
Explanation: How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum came to light with the discovery of planetary nebulae like IC 4406. IC 4406 is most probably cylindrical, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder. Hot gas is known to be flowing out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the nebula's center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: April 3, 1998 - Hen 1357: New Born Nebula
Explanation: This Hubble Space Telescope picture shows Hen-1357, the youngest known planetary nebula. Graceful, gentle curves and symmetry suggest its popular name - The Stingray Nebula. Observations in the 1970s detected no nebular material, but this image from March 1996 clearly shows the Stingray's emerging bubbles and rings of shocked and ionized gas. The gas is energized by the hot central star as it nears the end of its life, evolving toward a final white dwarf phase. The image also shows a companion star (at about 10 o'clock) within the nebula. Astronomers suspect that such companions account for the complex shapes and rings of this and many other planetary nebulae. This cosmic infant is about 130 times the size of our own solar system and growing. It is 18,000 light-years distant, in the southern constellation Ara.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: March 25, 1998 - Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 in Infrared
Explanation: NGC 7027 is one of the smallest known planetary nebulae. Even so, NGC 7027 is 14,000 times larger than the Earth-Sun distance. Planetary nebula are so named because the first few discovered appeared similar to planets. Planetary nebula are actually dying stars, though, that have recently run out of nuclear fuel. The outer gaseous shells are expelled by an unknown process, frequently creating spectacular displays. In the above picture in infrared light, the hot central star is visible. Our Sun will become a planetary nebula in about 5 billion years.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: February 18, 1998 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of "annoying" diffuse objects not to be confused with "interesting" comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: January 19, 1998 - The Hubble 5 Planetary Nebula
Explanation: The Hubble Double Bubble Planetary Nebula is bubbling over with excitement. More mundanely known as Hubble 5, this bipolar planetary nebula is being created by a hot wind of particles streaming away from the central star system. The hot gas expands into the surrounding interstellar medium in a fashion similar to the inflation of hot air balloons. A supersonic shock-wave can form at the boundary, causing newly excited gas there to shine as electrons recombine with resident elements. In the above picture, colors are assigned according to the energy of the recombinant radiation. This star system lies about 2200 light-years from Earth, and likely includes a Sun-like star slowly transforming itself into a white dwarf.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: January 6, 1998 - The Red Spider Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, shown in the central inset, have been measured in excess of 300 kilometers per second. These hot winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula's walls, and cause gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-light picture.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 31, 1997 - NGC 5307: A Symmetric Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Some stellar nebulae are strangely symmetric. For example, every major blob of gas visible on the upper left of NGC 5307 appears to have a counterpart on the lower right. This picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope was released last week. NGC 5307 is an example of a planetary nebula with a spiral shape. Spiral planetary nebulae are thought to be caused by a bright central white dwarf star expelling a symmetric wobbling jet of rapidly moving gas. It takes light about 10,000 years to reach us from NGC 5307, and about 6 months just to go from one side to the other. In contrast, light takes only about 8 minutes to reach Earth from the Sun.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 30, 1997 - NGC 7009: The Saturn Nebula
Explanation: The layers of the Saturn Nebula give a complex picture of how this planetary nebula was created. The above picture, taken in April 1996 and released last week, allows a better understanding of the mysterious process that transformed a low-mass star into a white dwarf star. A computer model indicates that the central star of NGC 7009 first expelled the green gas that now appears barrel shaped. This green gas now confines stellar winds flowing from the central star, creating a jet which forms the ansae that appear in red at the tips. Much remains unknown, including why the gas has not become turbulent.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 23, 1997 - M2-9: Wings of a Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: October 21, 1997 - The Butterfly Planetary Nebula
Explanation: As stars age, they throw off their outer layers. Sometimes a highly symmetric gaseous planetary nebula is created, as is the case in M2-9, also called the Butterfly. Most planetary nebulae show this bipolar appearance, although some appear nearly spherical. An unusual characteristic of the Butterfly is that spots on the "wings" appear to have moved slightly over the years. The above picture was taken in three bands of infrared light and computationally shifted into the visible. Much remains unknown about planetary nebulae, including why some appear symmetric, what creates the knots of emission (some known as FLIERS), and how exactly stars create them.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: September 14, 1997 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. Astronomers have recently used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the "hourglass". The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process and may help resolve the outstanding mystery of the variety of complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: August 2, 1997 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals "The Cat's Eye Nebula" to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in this image are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: March 31, 1997 - NGC 3242: The 'Ghost of Jupiter' Planetary Nebula
Explanation: It's a weed, it's Jupiter, no it's - actually planetary nebula NGC 3242. After a star like our Sun completes fusion in its core, it throws off its outer layers it a striking display called a planetary nebula. NGC 3242 is such a planetary nebula, with the stellar remnant white dwarf star visible at the center. This nebula is sometimes called "The Ghost of Jupiter" for its similar appearance to the familiar planet. NGC 3242 is much farther away however, than the measly 40 light-minutes distance to Jupiter. In fact, by comparing the apparent expansion rate with the actual rate determined from Doppler studies, astronomers have estimated the distance to NGC 3242 to be about 1400 light-years away. The red FLIERs visible near the edges of the nebula remain mysterious.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: February 15, 1997 - Shapley 1: An Annular Planetary Nebula
Explanation: What happens when a star runs out of nuclear fuel? The center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula, designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring like structure. Although some of these nebula appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our Solar System.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 7, 1996 - Planetary Systems Now Forming in Orion
Explanation: How do planets form? Astronomers are finding out by studying one of the most interesting of all astronomical nebulae known, the Great Nebula in Orion. Insets to above mosaic show several planetary systems in formation. The bottom left insert shows the relative size of our own Solar System. The Orion Nebula contains many stellar nurseries. These nurseries contain hydrogen gas, hot young stars, proplyds, and stellar jets spewing material at high speeds. Much of the filamentary structure visible in this image are actually shock waves - fronts where fast moving material encounters slow moving gas. Some shock waves are visible near one of the bright stars in the lower left of the picture. The Orion Nebula is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as is our Sun.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: November 22, 1996 - Fliers Around the Blue Snowball Nebula
Explanation: Planetary nebulae are strange. First, they are gas clouds and have nothing to do with our Solar System's planets. Next, although hundreds of planetary nebulae have been catalogued and thousands surely exist in our Galaxy, aspects of the formation process are still debated. But now yet another mystery has come to light: what created the fast-moving gas clouds that appear around planetary nebula? Dubbed FLIERs for Fast Low-Ionization Emission Regions, these knots of dense gas appear to have been ejected from the central star before it cast of the planetary nebula. Currently, no model can account for either their formation or longevity. In the above false-color picture of NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball Planetary Nebula, the FLIERs are featured in the image inserts.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: November 21, 1996 - The Blue Snowball Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Will the Sun one day look like - a blue snowball? Maybe! The Blue Snowball is a planetary nebula - and in 5 billion years the Sun will throw off its outer layers and go through a planetary nebula phase. A star can appear "normal" only so long as there are sufficient nuclear reactions in its core. Soon thereafter, gravity will win out and compress the stellar core to higher temperatures. Eventually the core becomes a white dwarf. These high temperatures somehow cause the expulsion of star's outer layers, creating a planetary nebula such as the Blue Snowball pictured above. Although the Blue Snowball, also known as NGC 7662, does appear blue, the above picture's colors are not real and were chosen to highlight the emission of certain ions in the nebula. Many things are still not known about planetary nebula, including details of the physical mechanism that creates the nebula, and the reason for fast knots of gas in the outer regions known as fliers.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: August 28, 1996 - NGC 5882: A Small Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Will most stars one day look like this? Pictured above is the planetary nebula NGC 5882, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Although planetary nebulae can appear similar to planets like Uranus and Neptune, they are actually gas clouds surrounding stars typically hundreds of light years away. Planetary nebula form when a typical star completes fusion in its core and ejects an outer envelope of gas - usually about 10 percent of the star's initial mass. This gas shell dims in about 50,000 years - short compared to the lifetimes of stars. Therefore, although only about 1000 planetary nebula are known in our Galaxy, it is thought that most stars go through this phase. Green light is emitted when oxygen ions acquire electrons from the surrounding gas.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: July 4, 1996 - The Cat's Eye Nebula (Revisited)
Explanation: Three thousand light years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals "The Cat's Eye Nebula" to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in this image are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: January 18, 1996 - MyCn18: An Hourglass Nebula
Explanation: The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star's life occurs as its outer layers are ejected - its core becoming a cooling, fading White Dwarf. Astronomers have recently used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the "hourglass". The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process and may help resolve the outstanding mystery of the variety of complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulae.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 29, 1995 - NGC 4361: Galaxy Shaped Planetary Nebula
Explanation: Glowing in the red light emitted by hydrogen atoms, the planetary nebula NGC 4361 is pictured above. The nebula itself is formed by the outer layers of gas shrugged off by the central star visible in the image. The star's nuclear fuel almost exhausted, it is cooling and shrinking - entering the white dwarf phase of its life. The curved tendrils of emission reaching out from the body of the nebula have a shape reminiscent of the arms of of a spiral galaxy.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 12, 1995 - Shapley 1: An Annular Planetary Nebula
Explanation: This strange structure is what can result when a normal star runs out of nuclear fuel in its core. At that time, the center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula, designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring like structure. Although some of these nebula appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our solar system.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: December 11, 1995 - NGC 5189: A Strange Planetary Nebula
Explanation: After a Sun-like star can no longer support fusion in its core, the center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula. This particular planetary nebula has a quite strange and chaotic structure. The inner part of this nebula contains an unusual expanding ring of gas that we see nearly edge-on. The exact mechanism that expels the planetary nebula gas is a current topic of astronomical speculation and research.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: July 29, 1995 - M27: The Dumbbell Nebula
Explanation: The Dumbbell Nebula is a beautiful red and blue planetary nebula in the constellation of Vulpecula. It is the 27th object on Charles Messier's list of diffuse sky objects, and so is referred to as M27. Its high surface brightness makes it a good target for small telescopes. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, astronomers have determined them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of evolution.

Thumbnail image of picture found for this day. APOD: June 28, 1995 - The Cat's Eye Nebula
Explanation: Three thousand light years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This Hubble Space Telescope image reveals "The Cat's Eye Nebula" to be one of the most complex "planetary nebulae" known. In fact, the features seen in this image are so complex that astronomers suspect the visible central star may actually be a double star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of evolution.


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