Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

A glowing jellyfish floats in a starry sea. Instead of floating in water, what appears to be a translucent sea creature is actually a dying star surrounded by rings of glowing gas in this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

NGC 1514 from the Digitized Sky Survey, based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

Explore the image of NGC 1514, also known as the Crystal Ball Nebula. The object is a close pair of dying stars; so close WISE cannot distinguish between them. Two unusual dust rings, shown in orange, surround the stars as well as other material, shown in green. The WISE telescope shows astronomers the universe in infrared light. The telescope basically sees heat, so what we see in this picture isn’t actually what our eyes would see. Astronomers have given certain wavelengths of light certain colors so we can better understand what we are seeing. In the image at the left, we see the Crystal Ball Nebula as our eyes see it through ground-based telescopes.

NGC 1514 is located about 800 light-years away toward the zodiacal constellation Taurus, the Bull. Taurus is one of thirteen constellations that the Sun moves through throughout the year.

NGC 1514 is a planetary nebula. As stars similar to our Sun reach the end of their lives, they puff off their outer layers. A white-hot core called a white dwarf is all that is left behind. As the bubble expands, the white dwarf star floods the surrounding region with intense radiation causing the gas to glow like a neon sign. Far in the future, this dead star will eventually fade as it becomes a warm ember. Our Sun will not reach this stage of its life for another 4 billion years or so.

Sometimes these bubbles of gas and dust form round orbs surrounding the star. Other times, butterfly shapes appear. But in other cases, when two stars are involved, the puffing out of gas becomes more complex. The two rings are new to astronomers. Scientists speculate that the rings formed when jets of material from one of the stars hit walls of a bubble of dust surrounding the other star.

Planetary nebula have nothing to do with planets. As astronomers in the 17th and 18th centuries explored and cataloged the sky through new telescopes, they found round, fuzzy objects that resembled the orbs of Uranus and Neptune. British astronomer William Herschel discovered NGC 1514 in 1790. He was surprised to find a “shining fluid” surrounding the object. Originally, he thought that NGC 1514 and other similarly fuzzy objects were clusters of stars. But NGC 1514 convinced him that the blobs were actually a new astronomical phenomenon.

WISE scans the entire sky in infrared light pick­ing up the faint glow of far-off objects. The orbit­ing obser­va­tory is joined in space by two other infrared obser­va­to­ries; NASAs Spitzer Space Tele­scope and Her­schel Space Obser­va­tory from the Euro­pean Space Agency. These infrared obser­va­to­ries detect heat from objects in space, even the barely notice­able heat of a cool star. The WISE mis­sion dif­fers from the other two by scan­ning the entire sky. Astronomers using this tech­nique have seen all sorts of pre­vi­ously unseen cos­mic trea­sures, such as cool stars, bright galax­ies, comets, aster­oids that pass near Earth.