The ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) has captured a beautiful image of a planetary nebula known as NGC 7009, or the Saturn Nebula, as part of a wider study attempting to unravel the processes that give these vast cosmic clouds of dust and glowing gas their distinctive shape.
The nebula itself was created as an aging red giant threw off vast quantities of material, which was subsequently molded and distorted by powerful stellar winds. The heart of this star, as we see it now, is in the process of transforming into a white dwarf. It can be seen lurking in the center of the image as a bright point of light.
The eerie specter of NGC 7009 is located about 5,000 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Aquarius. Despite the fact that the structure was born with the slow demise of a star, it forms what is known as a planetary nebula.
Considering this counter intuitive designation, it is fitting that NGC 7009 was given the moniker of the Saturn Nebula, as it (arguably) bears a passing resemblance to our solar system's most prominently ringed planet viewed edge on from Earth.
The gas that composes the Saturn Nebula has been ionized by ultraviolet radiation pouring out from the lone star lurking at the heart of NGC 7009, causing the cloud of dust and gas to appear brightly colored.
The ghostly structure is only likely to be visible from Earth for a few tens of thousands of years – a blink of the eye in cosmic terms. As the short-lived nebula matures and expands, it will also cool, causing the light emitted from the gas to dim until it becomes undetectable to even the most powerful of telescopes.
The image was captured using the ESO's Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument mounted on unit four of the VLT, located at the Paranal Observatory, Chile. MUSE is a highly advanced spectrograph capable of observing and capturing data on an entire astronomical object, such as a nebula, at once. The instrument characterizes the light from each captured pixel to create stunning imagery of incredible scientific value.
This new image of NGC 7009 represents the first detailed optical map of the dust and gas that forms a planetary nebula. It reveals numerous intricate structures, including an elliptical inner shell, an outer shell, and a halo. The scientists also discovered a wave-like feature in the dust scattered throughout the nebula.
The study also revealed a dip in the amount of dust in the inner shell feature of NGC 7009. This inner shell is where the stellar winds from the star at the core of the nebula collides with the matter that had previously been ejected from the stellar body, effectively creating a shock wave. It is possible that this interaction is creating a heating effect that is essentially evaporating the dust in the region. Alternatively, the dust grains could have been destroyed by the sheer force of the shock wave.
It is hoped that the observations will shed new light on the life cycles of low-mass stellar bodies, such as the star that forms the core of the Saturn Nebula, as well as giving us a greater understanding as to how these enigmatic structures take on their unusual shapes.
Scroll down to view an ESO video zooming in on the Saturn Nebula