Spectacular Image of Planetary Nebula Created by Dying Star Captured by Astronomers

Astronomers have captured a spectacular image of a dramatic planetary nebula located around 6,500 light-years away in the constellation of Circinus (The Compass.)

The shell of gas—known as CVMP 1—was produced by a dying, massive star known as a red giant which shed its outer layers, creating the hourglass-shaped formation that's visible in the image.

This cloud of gas glows because it is blasted by ultraviolet radiation from the hot, exposed core of the dying star, converting the molecules inside it into ions—or in other words, removing the electrons. These ions absorb ultraviolet light, producing the bright colors that can be seen in the image.

Observations indicate that the temperature of the central star is around 230,000 degrees Fahrenheit. But over millennia, the remnants of the dying star will cool, causing the light from the glowing gas cloud to fade—to the point where CVMP 1 will eventually become invisible.

Planetary nebulae usually only persist for tens of thousands of years, a tiny blip in the lifecycle of a star. Only stars with masses between roughly one and eight times that of our own sun tend to form planetary nebulae.

CVMP 1 is one of the largest known planetary nebulae. It appears to contain high quantities of helium and nitrogen—indicating that it is coming toward the end of its lifecycle.

The first astronomers to identify these objects in the late 1700s noted that they looked like planets—a conclusion attributed to the early telescope technology available then—which is how they came to be named.

Because of their relatively short lifetimes, planetary nebulae are rare sighting in the galaxy, with scientists having identified only about 1,500 of them, according to the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

planetary nebula CVMP 1
A composite color image of the planetary nebula CVMP 1 imaged by the Gemini South telescope. Gemini Observatory/NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/AURA

Most measure roughly a light-year wide. They tend to come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes, with very few displaying a simple, round structure. Many planetary nebulae are elliptical or shaped like butterflies.

Exactly how the material from the star forms these types of shapes remains something of a mystery for astronomers, although it is thought that the presence of companion stars, orbiting planets, or other factors, could play a key role.

The latest image of CVMP 1 was captured by the Gemini South 8.1-meter diameter telescope, located on the summit of Cerro Pachon in Chile. This telescope forms one half of the international Gemini Observatory alongside its twin, Gemini North, which is located on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Peter Michaud, a spokesperson for the Gemini Observatory, told Newsweek that images such as these can help scientists to learn about the fate of stars like our sun and understand their death throes as they their final evolutionary state.

"Ultimately the central star in most planetary nebulae become white dwarfs—stellar embers—and very slowly cool for billions and billions of years," Michaud said.

This article was updated to include comments from Peter Michaud.