Space

Stellar fireworks: Mesmerizing nebulae from our galaxy and beyond

The Veil Nebula, located about 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, is a supernova remnant from a star that would have had 20 times the mass of the Sun.
The Veil Nebula, located about 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, is a supernova remnant from a star that would have had 20 times the mass of the Sun.
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The Veil Nebula, located about 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, is a supernova remnant from a star that would have had 20 times the mass of the Sun.
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The Veil Nebula, located about 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, is a supernova remnant from a star that would have had 20 times the mass of the Sun.
Commonly known as the Pillars of Creation, this active star-forming region is one small part of the Eagle Nebula, located 7,000 light-years away. This image, recently taken by Hubble, is one of the most detailed pictures of the formation – blue is oxygen, red is sulfur and green is both nitrogen and hydrogen.
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Commonly known as the Pillars of Creation, this active star-forming region is one small part of the Eagle Nebula, located 7,000 light-years away. This image, recently taken by Hubble, is one of the most detailed pictures of the formation – blue is oxygen, red is sulfur and green is both nitrogen and hydrogen.
Another billowing pillar in the Eagle Nebula, this one stretching 9.5 light-years tall. The top section is bathed in UV light from a cluster of young stars off the top of the image, which is slowly eroding the formation.
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Another billowing pillar in the Eagle Nebula, this one stretching 9.5 light-years tall. The top section is bathed in UV light from a cluster of young stars off the top of the image, which is slowly eroding the formation.
The Crab Nebula was created in a supernova that was so bright it was visible by the naked eye from Earth in the year 1054. It’s about 10 light-years wide and has a pulsar at its core, which crams the mass of the Sun into a neutron star just 30 km (19 mi) wide.NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)
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The Crab Nebula was created in a supernova that was so bright it was visible by the naked eye from Earth in the year 1054. It’s about 10 light-years wide and has a pulsar at its core, which crams the mass of the Sun into a neutron star just 30 km (19 mi) wide.NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)
NGC 2392 is nicknamed the Eskimo Nebula, thanks to its apparent resemblance to a face wrapped in a fur parka. The “face” is a bubble of matter being ejected from the dying star in the center, while the “parka” is made up of gas blown off from the outer layer of the progenitor star.
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NGC 2392 is nicknamed the Eskimo Nebula, thanks to its apparent resemblance to a face wrapped in a fur parka. The “face” is a bubble of matter being ejected from the dying star in the center, while the “parka” is made up of gas blown off from the outer layer of the progenitor star.
The Calabash Nebula is a celestial object still in the process of exploding. Astronomers rarely capture this relatively brief moment in the life cycle of a star, as it transitions from a red giant to a planetary nebula about 1,000 years from now. The gas in yellow is moving at almost 1 million km/h (621,371 mph).
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The Calabash Nebula is a celestial object still in the process of exploding. Astronomers rarely capture this relatively brief moment in the life cycle of a star, as it transitions from a red giant to a planetary nebula about 1,000 years from now. The gas in yellow is moving at almost 1 million km/h (621,371 mph).
Just 700 light-years away, the eerie Helix Nebula keeps a close eye on Earth. At the center of a two-light-year-wide cloud of gas, the white dwarf star glows a creepy red thanks to a dusty disk of debris, possibly formed by a cluster of comet-like bodies constantly colliding.
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Just 700 light-years away, the eerie Helix Nebula keeps a close eye on Earth. At the center of a two-light-year-wide cloud of gas, the white dwarf star glows a creepy red thanks to a dusty disk of debris, possibly formed by a cluster of comet-like bodies constantly colliding.
The Cat’s Eye is one of the most eye-catching nebulae out there. Located about 3,000 light-years away, this image has been processed to highlight the details of the star’s death throes, with a sharper view of the light and dark areas of the image and a more complex color palette.
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The Cat’s Eye is one of the most eye-catching nebulae out there. Located about 3,000 light-years away, this image has been processed to highlight the details of the star’s death throes, with a sharper view of the light and dark areas of the image and a more complex color palette.
Another shot of the Cat’s Eye, this time created by combining optical data from Hubble and X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The brightness of the orange coloring correlates to the intensity of the X-ray emissions.
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Another shot of the Cat’s Eye, this time created by combining optical data from Hubble and X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The brightness of the orange coloring correlates to the intensity of the X-ray emissions.
NGC 1999 is a reflection nebula, meaning it doesn’t give off its own light but is lit up by a star behind it, like fog around a street light.
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NGC 1999 is a reflection nebula, meaning it doesn’t give off its own light but is lit up by a star behind it, like fog around a street light.
This emerald-colored nebula, named RCW 120, is found near the constellation of Scorpius and imaged here in infrared by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
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This emerald-colored nebula, named RCW 120, is found near the constellation of Scorpius and imaged here in infrared by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
The Stingray Nebula is the youngest known planetary nebula.
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The Stingray Nebula is the youngest known planetary nebula.
The Orion nebula, seen here as the bright region in the center of the image, is an active stellar nursery near the “sword” of the constellation Orion.
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The Orion nebula, seen here as the bright region in the center of the image, is an active stellar nursery near the “sword” of the constellation Orion.
NGC 1501, otherwise known as the Oyster Nebula, sits 5,000 light-years from Earth and has an unusually bright central star.
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NGC 1501, otherwise known as the Oyster Nebula, sits 5,000 light-years from Earth and has an unusually bright central star.
This detailed image shows the swirling molecular clouds in one part of the gigantic Carina Nebula, which stretches 300 light-years wide.
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This detailed image shows the swirling molecular clouds in one part of the gigantic Carina Nebula, which stretches 300 light-years wide.
Over 4,000 light-years away in the constellation of Scorpius, NGC 6153 contains abnormally large amounts of neon, argon, oxygen, carbon and chlorine.ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Matej Novak
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Over 4,000 light-years away in the constellation of Scorpius, NGC 6153 contains abnormally large amounts of neon, argon, oxygen, carbon and chlorine.ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Matej Novak
This composite image of NGC 281 – informally known as the Pacman Nebula – is made up of X-ray data from Chandra (purple) and infrared date from Spitzer (red, green and blue).
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This composite image of NGC 281 – informally known as the Pacman Nebula – is made up of X-ray data from Chandra (purple) and infrared date from Spitzer (red, green and blue).
It’s not hard to see why this is called the Butterfly Nebula. The distinctive shape is caused by two stars in the center rapidly orbiting each other so closely that it might have torn one apart, ejecting its outer layers to form the nebula.
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It’s not hard to see why this is called the Butterfly Nebula. The distinctive shape is caused by two stars in the center rapidly orbiting each other so closely that it might have torn one apart, ejecting its outer layers to form the nebula.
This infrared image shows the Spider Nebula, 10,000 light-years away on the very fringe of the Milky Way galaxy. It’s part of a pair of nebulae together called The Spider and the Fly.
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This infrared image shows the Spider Nebula, 10,000 light-years away on the very fringe of the Milky Way galaxy. It’s part of a pair of nebulae together called The Spider and the Fly.
This image, from the heart of the Flame Nebula about 1,400 light-years away, is made up of Chandra X-ray data (purple) and Spitzer infrared data (red, green and blue).
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This image, from the heart of the Flame Nebula about 1,400 light-years away, is made up of Chandra X-ray data (purple) and Spitzer infrared data (red, green and blue).
Another view of the Flame Nebula, this time just in infrared. The Flame Nebula is the bright part of the image, and the Horsehead Nebula and NGC 2023 are also visible nearby.
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Another view of the Flame Nebula, this time just in infrared. The Flame Nebula is the bright part of the image, and the Horsehead Nebula and NGC 2023 are also visible nearby.
The upper section of the Cone Nebula, a huge pillar of dust that is constantly giving birth to new stars.
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The upper section of the Cone Nebula, a huge pillar of dust that is constantly giving birth to new stars.
About 3,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Red Spider Nebula is home to one of the hottest stars known. 
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About 3,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Red Spider Nebula is home to one of the hottest stars known. 
This spectacular view of the Tarantula Nebula is a composite image of optical data from Hubble, X-ray data from Chandra and infrared data from Spitzer. The nebula sits in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy that orbits the Milky Way.
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This spectacular view of the Tarantula Nebula is a composite image of optical data from Hubble, X-ray data from Chandra and infrared data from Spitzer. The nebula sits in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy that orbits the Milky Way.
A composite X-ray, optical and infrared image of the star-forming region known as the Elephant Trunk Nebula.
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A composite X-ray, optical and infrared image of the star-forming region known as the Elephant Trunk Nebula.
This infrared image from Spitzer shows what’s known as the North America Nebula, although the shape of the cloud that gives it its name vanishes in infrared light.
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This infrared image from Spitzer shows what’s known as the North America Nebula, although the shape of the cloud that gives it its name vanishes in infrared light.
Another infrared view of the North America Nebula, this time with different wavelengths of light assigned different colors, to help highlight its intricate structure.
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Another infrared view of the North America Nebula, this time with different wavelengths of light assigned different colors, to help highlight its intricate structure.
Another view of the Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus), taken in ultraviolet, visible and red light. This image highlights the intense cluster of stars being born in the region.
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Another view of the Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus), taken in ultraviolet, visible and red light. This image highlights the intense cluster of stars being born in the region.
The Lagoon Nebula sounds peaceful, but it’s a turbulent place full of strong stellar winds from hot stars, churning pillars of gas and intense star formation.
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The Lagoon Nebula sounds peaceful, but it’s a turbulent place full of strong stellar winds from hot stars, churning pillars of gas and intense star formation.
Described as resembling an angel, the “wings” of Sharpless 2-106 are caused by two huge plumes of super-heated gas, which glow blue. A “belt” of dust orbits the star in the middle and squashes the nebula into an hourglass shape.
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Described as resembling an angel, the “wings” of Sharpless 2-106 are caused by two huge plumes of super-heated gas, which glow blue. A “belt” of dust orbits the star in the middle and squashes the nebula into an hourglass shape.
The striking structure of the Twin Jet Nebula comes from the fact that its core is not one star but a binary pair. It’s believed that the stellar explosion occurred just 1,200 years ago – very recently, in the grand scheme of things.
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The striking structure of the Twin Jet Nebula comes from the fact that its core is not one star but a binary pair. It’s believed that the stellar explosion occurred just 1,200 years ago – very recently, in the grand scheme of things.
A mosaic of infrared images of the Monkey Head Nebula, a cloudy star-forming region located about 6,400 light-years from Earth.
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A mosaic of infrared images of the Monkey Head Nebula, a cloudy star-forming region located about 6,400 light-years from Earth.
One of the most famous celestial objects in the universe, the Horsehead Nebula gets its name from its very distinctive shape.
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One of the most famous celestial objects in the universe, the Horsehead Nebula gets its name from its very distinctive shape.
A different glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, this time in infrared light.
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A different glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, this time in infrared light.
The star Hen 2-427 sits at the center of this image, and is in the process of expelling its outer layers, forming the nebula M1-67. It lies 15,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius.
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The star Hen 2-427 sits at the center of this image, and is in the process of expelling its outer layers, forming the nebula M1-67. It lies 15,000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius.
This image shows the top section of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas in the Carina Nebula. The cloud is being eaten from the inside by infant stars as they form and fire up.
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This image shows the top section of a three-light-year-tall pillar of gas in the Carina Nebula. The cloud is being eaten from the inside by infant stars as they form and fire up.
The planetary nebula IC 418 resembles a spirograph drawing. In this false-color image, red represents ionized nitrogen, green is hydrogen and blue is ionized oxygen.
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The planetary nebula IC 418 resembles a spirograph drawing. In this false-color image, red represents ionized nitrogen, green is hydrogen and blue is ionized oxygen.
NGC 6369 is also known as the Little Ghost Nebula, because in smaller telescopes it appears ghostly and faded. Using Hubble, astronomers can resolve far more detail.
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NGC 6369 is also known as the Little Ghost Nebula, because in smaller telescopes it appears ghostly and faded. Using Hubble, astronomers can resolve far more detail.
This dramatic image of the Crescent Nebula, snapped by the ESA’s XMM-Newton, shows a red giant star in the process of throwing off its outer layers of matter. The blue areas are X-ray emissions, while the green is oxygen.
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This dramatic image of the Crescent Nebula, snapped by the ESA’s XMM-Newton, shows a red giant star in the process of throwing off its outer layers of matter. The blue areas are X-ray emissions, while the green is oxygen.
This neon image shows the Thor’s Helmet Nebula. Blue represents X-ray emissions, while red indicates ionized hydrogen and green is ionized oxygen.
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This neon image shows the Thor’s Helmet Nebula. Blue represents X-ray emissions, while red indicates ionized hydrogen and green is ionized oxygen.

Like fireworks that linger for millennia, nebulae are some of the most photogenic objects in the universe. These vast clouds of dust and gas represent both the birth and death of stars, and their swirling forms lend themselves well to creative names based on whatever shapes observers happen to see in them. New Atlas has collected some of the most breathtaking nebula images ever taken.

Originally, the term "nebula" referred to any murky, diffuse celestial object, up to and including galaxies like Andromeda. But as our technology improved so did our understanding of nebulae, bringing their true nature into sharper focus.

Commonly known as the Pillars of Creation, this active star-forming region is one small part of the Eagle Nebula, located 7,000 light-years away. This image, recently taken by Hubble, is one of the most detailed pictures of the formation – blue is oxygen, red is sulfur and green is both nitrogen and hydrogen.
Commonly known as the Pillars of Creation, this active star-forming region is one small part of the Eagle Nebula, located 7,000 light-years away. This image, recently taken by Hubble, is one of the most detailed pictures of the formation – blue is oxygen, red is sulfur and green is both nitrogen and hydrogen.

Nebulae fall into a few categories. H II regions are huge clouds of ionized hydrogen, which over time have begun to collapse in on themselves in pockets to form new stars. One of the most famous of these stellar nurseries is the Eagle Nebula, home to the gorgeous Pillars of Creation.

The Crab Nebula was created in a supernova that was so bright it was visible by the naked eye from Earth in the year 1054. It’s about 10 light-years wide and has a pulsar at its core, which crams the mass of the Sun into a neutron star just 30 km (19 mi) wide.NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)
The Crab Nebula was created in a supernova that was so bright it was visible by the naked eye from Earth in the year 1054. It’s about 10 light-years wide and has a pulsar at its core, which crams the mass of the Sun into a neutron star just 30 km (19 mi) wide.NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU)

But nebulae bookend the life of a star. Supernova remnants and planetary nebulae are the clouds of material ejected in the death throes of stars, and are relatively short-lived in the grand scheme of things. They fade away after just tens of thousands of years, having spread their heavier elements through the cosmos. One of the most well-known of these is the Crab Nebula, still visible almost 1,000 years after a supernova lit up the night sky in the year 1054.

Hit the gallery for a trip through our galaxy and beyond as we marvel at some of the most mesmerizing nebula ever photographed.

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