Abell 33, a nebula 2,500 light years from Earth, has been photographed in a new image resembling a diamond ring.
The image was taken by the Very Large Telescope, part of the European Southern Observatory, located in northern Chile.
A nearly-spherical cloud of gas and dust is rising off the surface of the star Abell 33. This release of gas is common in dying stars, although the clouds are usually much more irregular than they are around this star. This gas is expanding as a sphere, but as we look at it from Earth, we are looking through more material at the edges than through the middles of the envelope. This is why we see a ring around the dying star.
"The remnant of Abell 33's progenitor star, on its way to becoming a white dwarf, can be seen just slightly off-centre inside the nebula, visible as a tiny white pearl. It is still bright - more luminous than our own Sun - and emits enough ultraviolet radiation to make the bubble of expelled atmosphere glow," the European Space Agency wrote in a press release announcing the image.
HD 83535 is large and hot, releasing large quantities of ultraviolet light. This star, lying between Abell 33 and the Earth, makes up the "diamond" in the "engagement ring" seen in the image.
Stars can live for billions of years, but they only have a limited lifespan. The method by which they perish depends entirely on their mass. Stars similar in size to our Sun will end their lives as White Dwarf Stars, about the same size as Earth. In the process of transforming into these shrunken remnants, they expel gas from their outer shell, which expands, forming a planetary nebula. One of the most famous of these is M-57, the Ring Nebula.
In the image, the remnant star left behind by Abell 33 appears to contain a double star system. Astronomers are not sure if this is an actual binary pair, or if they are seeing a second star, located far from the dying body.
Abell 33 is one of more than 4,000 nebulae in both hemispheres cataloged by George Abell in 1966.
The European Southern Observatory operates the Very Large Telescope which took the image. They described the instrument as "the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory." The ESO is planning to build a new optical and infrared telescope with a diameter of 128 feet.
This may be just an odd alignment, but this image of a diamond ring in the sky is still breathtaking.