Butterflies Beyond the Tail of a Swan

NASA/ESA Hub­ble

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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