Credit: ESA/NASA Hubble


A starlike butterfly flits in the dark in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the body and wings of planetary nebula NGC 6881. What shapes and patterns do you see? Leave a note below.

The inner part of NGC 6881 is about one-fifth of a light-year across. Light, traveling at about 6 trillion miles per year, would take about one year to zip between the symmetrical tips of this cosmic butterfly. The wings of NGC 6881 formed at about the same rate in the same way. Symmetrical means that one side is almost a mirror image of the other side. Some planetary nebulae have jumbled interiors while others form in cylinders that from our vantage on Earth look like donuts.

Planetary nebula are the final stage of life for stars like our own Sun. After billions of years, the star runs out of hydrogen fuel. In an attempt to keep burning the star balloons in size to become a red giant. The star puffs out its outer layers creating an expanding bubble. Eventually, all that remains is the bright and hot core called a white dwarf. Strong solar winds shape the new nebula, pushing gas and dust away from the star. Blistering ultraviolet radiation from the white dwarf warm and excite molecules in the gas cloud causing it to glow. A planetary nebula is born.

Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets however. When astronomers first sought out planets in their telescopes, they ran across objects that looked much like the giant planets of Uranus and Neptune. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the true nature and distance of planetary nebula was discovered.

NGC 6881 is found about 13,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan.

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