Stunning space butterfly captured by ESO telescope

July 30, 2020

Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colours, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas -- known as NGC 2899 -- appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new picture from ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars.

NGC 2899's vast swathes of gas extend up to a maximum of two light-years from its centre, glowing brightly in front of the stars of the Milky Way as the gas reaches temperatures upwards of ten thousand degrees. The high temperatures are due to the large amount of radiation from the nebula's parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas, in blue.

This object, located between 3000 and 6500 light-years away in the Southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), has two central stars, which are believed to give it its nearly symmetric appearance. After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers, the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here. Only about 10-20% of planetary nebulae [1] display this type of bipolar shape.

Astronomers were able to capture this highly detailed image of NGC 2899 using the FORS instrument installed on UT1 (Antu), one of the four 8.2-metre telescopes that make up ESO's VLT in Chile. Standing for FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph, this high-resolution instrument was one of the first to be installed on ESO's VLT and is behind numerous beautiful images and discoveries from ESO. FORS has contributed to observations of light from a gravitational wave source, has researched the first known interstellar asteroid, and has been used to study in depth the physics behind the formation of complex planetary nebulae.

This image was created under the ESO Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes, for the purposes of education and public outreach. The programme makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO's science archive.
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Notes

[1] Unlike what their common name suggests, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The first astronomers to observe them merely described them as planet-like in appearance. They are instead formed when ancient stars with up to 6 times the mass of our Sun reach the end of their lives, collapse, and blow off expanding shells of gas, rich in heavy elements. Intense ultraviolet radiation energises and lights up these moving shells, causing them to shine brightly for thousands of years until they ultimately disperse slowly through space, making planetary nebulae relatively short-lived phenomena on astronomical timescales.

More information

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world's largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".

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