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A dying star’s farewell show

Planetary nebula NGC 6210

Planetary nebula NGC 6210 in the constellation Hercules. A planetary nebula is a complex cloud of gas given off during the dying stages of a Sun-like star's life.

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has taken a striking high-resolution image of the curious planetary nebula NGC 6210.

Located about 6,500 light-years away, in the constellation of Hercules, NGC 6210 was discovered in 1825 by the German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve. Although through a small telescope it appears only as a tiny disc, it is fairly bright as planetary nebulae go.

Despite their name, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. They got their name because, through early telescopes, they looked more like planets than stars.

In fact, a planetary nebula is a complex cloud of gas produced in the dying stages of certain stars’ lives.

In this instance, NGC 6210 is the last gasp of a star slightly less massive than our Sun. Multiple shells of gas ejected by the dying star are superimposed on one another in different orientations, giving NGC 6210 its odd shape.

See a full-size, high-resolution wallpaper image here (new window).

This sharp image shows the inner region of this planetary nebula in unprecedented detail, where the central star is surrounded by a thin, bluish bubble that has a delicate filamentary structure. This bubble is superposed onto an asymmetric, reddish gas complex where holes, filaments and pillars are clearly visible.

A star’s life ends when the fuel available to its thermonuclear engine runs out. The estimated lifetime for a Sun-like star is some ten billion years. When the star is about to expire, it becomes unstable and ejects its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula and leaving behind a tiny, but very hot, remnant, known as white dwarf.

This compact object, visible at the centre of the image, cools down and fades very slowly. Stellar evolution theory predicts that our Sun will experience the same fate as NGC 6210 in about five billion years.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / Hubble / NASA.

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