Butterflies Beyond the Tail of a Swan


A butterfly-shaped nebula, the blasted remains of a star similar to our Sun, lies just beyond the tip of the tail of Cygnus, the Swan, in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the glowing gas and dust of this butterfly-shaped nebula known as NGC 7026. What shapes or stories can you tell? Leave a note in the comments below.

NGC 7026 is a planetary nebula. While astronomers using early telescopes thought these objects resembled planets, they are far beyond our solar system. As a star like our Sun ends its long life, it runs out of hydrogen atoms, the nuclear fuel that runs it. The star puffs off its outer layers creating bubbles of expanding gas and dust surrounding the white-hot core. Astronomers call this core a white dwarf. It is a dead star but is still incredibly hot. Eventually, after tens of billions of years, it will cool enough so you could touch it. But as a white dwarf, the star gives off strong solar winds that push material away from the star while blistering ultraviolet radiation causes the gas to glow. Different atoms in the expanding bubble give off different colors like a fluorescent sign on Earth. Red in this image is glowing nitrogen (the gas that makes up most of Earth’s atmosphere); blue is oxygen. Although in reality oxygen glows with a greenish color, astronomers have shifted the light in this image so they can see more detail.

NGC 7026 is found just 6,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Cygnus the Swan. That means that the light we see coming from this object has been traveling since before the beginning of recorded history.

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The ancient peoples saw pictures in the sky. From those patterns in the heavens, ancient storytellers created legends about heroes, maidens, dragons, bears, centaurs, dogs and mythical creatures...
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