This bubble floating out amid the constellation of Hydra, the female water snake, is the ghostly remnant of a dying star.
Captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, this is the best image yet of the soap bubble-like planetary nebula nicknamed the Southern Owl Nebula. The name is a reference to its lookalike in the Northern Hemisphere, the Owl Nebula.
Planetary nebulas form when relatively low-mass stars – such as our own sun – expand and eventually shoot gases outward. On the cosmic timescale, these events are fleeting. They last only tens of thousands of years, whereas a star's standard lifetime is on the order of a few billion years.
On Monday, NASA released another stunning image of a planetary nebula. This other planetary nebula, NGC 6565, is more colorful than the Southern Owl Nebula because of the way the ultraviolet radiation from the star at its core excited the gas that surrounds it.
In both nebulas, that core star will continue to burn even after the dazzling gasses surrounding it dissipate. At that point, the star becomes a super hot and extremely dense white dwarf.
This process is critical to the evolution of the universe because even these smaller stars are nuclear fusion reactors that create elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and other heavier elements. During the planetary nebula phase, these stars enrich their cosmic environment by shooting out these elements. These are the building blocks of new planets and stars and even life.
This photo of the Southern Owl Nebula is one of many stunners from the ESO Cosmic Gems program, aimed at getting the public excited about space by showing them its beauty.