Posts Tagged ‘Cygnus’

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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Starlike Butterfly

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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Dusty Angel

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

A dusty angel surrounds a newly formed star in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the star-forming region of Sh 2-106, or S106 for short. What shapes or stories do you see? Leave a note below.

S106 is a compact cover of dust surrounding this young star, S106R. S106R formed after gas and dust collapsed under gravity. As the dust cloud became more compact, it began to heat up. Eventually, the cloud heated up enough that hydrogen gas within the cloud fused in a sustained reaction. This reaction creates light and heat. Strong solar winds from the new star push the gas and dust into wing-like shapes. Radiation from the new star causes gases within the cloud to glow like a neon sign. Zoom in close to explore the jumbled detail within the cloud. This stage of the star’s life will not last very long. The winds that shape the nebula surrounding the star will blow the area clean. But some material may be left behind to form planets, comets and asteroids.

S106 is found about 3,300 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Astronomers used images from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s Subaru Telescope to extend the field of view of this image.

Watercolor Butterfly

Credit: Rodger Thompson, Marcia Rieke, Glenn Schneider, Dean Hines (University of Arizona); Raghvendra Sahai (Jet Propulsion Laboratory); NICMOS Instrument Definition Team, and NASA

A watercolor butterfly shines in this image of the Egg Nebula from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore this infrared image from the orbiting telescope. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note below.

The Egg Nebula, CRL 2688, is a planetary nebula. These bubbles of gas are all that remains of an aging star. When stars like the Sun reach the end of their lives, they throw off gas and dust lay­ers. Scientists study the death of stars to understand how elements are returned to deep space. Elements, such as carbon and nitrogen, formed from the burning of hydrogen and helium deep within the stars. These elements are essential for Earth-bound life and for new stars and planets.

Planetary nebulae come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like the Ring Nebula or the Eight Burst Nebula, are smooth bubbles. Others, such as IC 4634, are much more jumbled. The equal rings around the Egg Nebula cre­ate a bub­ble around the star. The Egg Nebulas outer dust lay­ers are one-tenth of a light-year from the star, more than 200 times larger than the orbit of Pluto in our solar sys­tem.

Infrared light is invisible to humans. The wavelength of light is slightly below the visible part of the spectrum that we can see. We feel it as heat though. Hubble’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, or NICMOS, can see through dust clouds to detect warm objects. Scientists assign different colors to different temperatures. Blue in this image is cool starlight reflected from dust particles. Red represents heat emitted from hot molecular hydrogen heated up as it slams into the calm gas and dust. The bubbles seem to be closed at the end as if bright material is blocking the high-speed gas inside. When compared to the dragonfly-like visible image, the bubbles match closely with the beams of light. The infrared image helps scientists understand that there is material between the beams of light, they just aren’t lit up.

The Egg Nebula is found about 300 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.

Dusty Butterfly

Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Dusty wings, resembling a butterfly, unfold around a star late in its life in this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the short-lived event, known as a protoplanetary nebula, around IRAS 20068+4051. What shapes and stories can you tell about this image? Leave a comment below.

The wings spreading from this star are just the first gasps of a dying star. When a star with a size sim­i­lar to our Sun burns through all of its hydro­gen fuel, the star begins to shed its outer lay­ers and puffs them out into space as giant bub­bles. High velocity interstellar winds push and mold the gas and dust released by the star. Radi­a­tion from the now dead stars white, hot core, called a white dwarf, heats the expand­ing shells of gas caus­ing the mate­r­ial to glow. Even­tu­ally, the neb­ula will fade as the mate­r­ial cools and expands into space. The white dwarf will cool and fade slowly from view over the next sev­eral bil­lion years. Our Sun will meet a sim­i­lar fate but not for another five bil­lion years or so.

Protoplanetary nebula, or a pre-planetary nebula, give astronomers a glimpse at the beginnings of the dying process. While astronomers call them plan­e­tary neb­u­lae, they have noth­ing to do with plan­ets. Planet hunters in the 17th and 18th cen­turies cat­a­loged many objects that had an orb-like appear­ance in tele­scopes; much like a planet. IRAS 20068+4051 is located toward the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.


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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