Hubble Spots a Beautiful Planetary Nebula

This Hubble image shows ESO 455-10, a planetary nebula in the constellation Scorpio. The color image consists of near infrared and optical observations from Hubble’s wide-field camera 3 (WFC3). Four filters were used to scan different wavelengths. Color is the result of assigning different hues to each monochromatic image associated with a single filter. NASA / ESA / Hubble / L. Stanghellini.

This week the Hubble Space Telescope captured another beautiful image of space: this time the planetary nebula ESO 455-10.

Despite their confusing name, planetary nebulae actually have nothing to do with planets. They were named by early astronomers who saw vague shapes in the sky and assumed they were planets. In fact, a planetary nebula is an envelope of ionized gas.

When a star the size of our sun reaches the end of its life, it sheds its outer layers, which move outward to form a shell. This shell is illuminated by the exposed core of the star, which causes the gas to glow brightly. This is the planetary nebula.

But these beautiful formations only last a relatively short time – a time in tens of thousands of years – before they disintegrate.

This particular planetary nebula is of interest because of the way it interacts with the mostly empty space around it called the interstellar medium.

“The flattened shells of ESO 455-10, previously held together as layers of its central star, not only give this planetary nebula its unique appearance, but also provide information about the nebula,” NASA wrote in a post. “In a star field, the pronounced asymmetrical arc of material over the north side of the nebula is a clear sign of interactions between ESO 455-10 and the interstellar medium.”

Planetary nebulae interact with the interstellar medium by shedding heavy elements such as metals that were originally created in stars. These elements are seeded into the interstellar medium by the planetary nebulae, helping to create the building blocks for new stars that will eventually be born.

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