Eye wide open

Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Upon first glance, an eye is apparent in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of nebula K 4-55. But explore the image and other shapes appear.

Kohoutek 4-55 is a planetary nebula and was named after Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek, who discovered many planetary nebula during the 1970s. Dr. Kohoutek also discovered a bright comet that appeared in 1973. Comet Kohoutek is not expected to be visible in Earth’s night sky for another 75,000 years.

A planetary nebula forms when the outer layers of a red giant star are expelled into space late in the lifetime of the star. Our Sun will one day become a red giant and eventually will form a planetary nebula. Intense, ultraviolet radiation from the core star excites, or ionizes, the shells of gas, causing them to glow. Like neon signs, different gases within the nebula glow with different colors; red for nitrogen, green for hydrogen, and blue for oxygen.

K 4-55 is different from other planetary nebula. Look for the bright inner ring of the nebula. In other planetary nebula, the shells of gas are more even. They are usually round, having expanded outward in a bubble around the star. K4-55 is surrounded by another ring that appears asymmetrical, or not even. Do you see the faint reddish halo around the entire nebula?

K 4-55 is found about 4,600 light years from Earth toward the constellation Cygnus, the swan. A light-year is the distance it takes light to travel in one year; a distance of nearly 6 trillion miles.

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