The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) has captured a beautiful image of the planetary nebula ESO 577-24. The ionized mass of gas and dust is only expected to be visible for another 10,000 years – no time at all from a cosmic perspective – before fading from view.
Our own Sun is expected to become a red giant in about 5 billion years, once it has fused the last of its hydrogen reserves into helium through the nuclear reaction taking place at its core. Without the outward pressure of the nuclear reaction, the force of gravity causes the star to collapse in on itself until the core heats up, and starts fusing helium into carbon and other heavier elements.
The renewed heat from the core forces the outer shell to swell exponentially. In our solar system, the encroaching Sun could potentially bloat out enough to consume the innermost planets Mercury and Venus.
A red giant will persist until it too runs out of fuel, at which point it expels its outer layers, which go on to form a planetary nebula. It then collapses to form a relatively tiny dwarf star.
The red giant that created ESO 577-24 (seen in the center of the image above) became a subdwarf O star called Abell 36. Upon its creation, the newly-born stellar body blasted the surrounding planetary nebula with ultraviolet radiation, ionizing the gas clouds and causing them to shine.
The vista was captured by astronomers using the FORS2 instrument mounted on the VLT as part of the ESO's Cosmic Gems Programme. The initiative makes use of periods of low-quality observing conditions unsuitable for scientific imaging, yet perfect for capturing views of the cosmos that can be used to educate, inspire, and engage the public.
In the new image, ESO 577-24 can be seen shining red and blue against a busy backdrop populated by distant galaxies, with Abell 36 appearing as a large white star in the center of the image.
A member of our own solar system is also present in the image. While observing the nebula, an asteroid photo-bombed the scene, visible as a faint track running below and to the left of the central star
Echoing the transience of the wandering asteroid, ESO 577-24 is doomed to disappear from this region of the night sky. In about 10,000 years, the nebula will have moved too far from the fading light of its dying star to be detected by even the most powerful of modern-day telescopes.
Scroll down to see a video zooming in on ESO 577-24 from the perspective of Earth.
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