An aging star’s last hurrah is creating a flurry of glowing knots of gas that appear to be streaking through space in this close-up image of the Dumbbell Nebula, taken with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
The Dumbbell, a nearby planetary nebula residing more than 1,200 light-years away, is the result of an old star that has shed its outer layers in a glowing display of color. The nebula, also known as Messier 27 (M27), was the first planetary nebula ever discovered. French astronomer Charles Messier spotted it in 1764.
The Hubble images of the Dumbbell show many knots, but their shapes vary. Some look like fingers pointing at the central star, located just off the upper left of the image; others are isolated clouds, with or without tails. Their sizes typically range from 11 - 35 billion miles (17 - 56 billion kilometers), which is several times larger than the distance from the Sun to Pluto. Each contains as much mass as three Earths.
The Dumbbell Nebula — also known as Messier 27 or NGC 6853 — is a typical planetary nebula and is located in the constellation Vulpecula (The Fox). The distance is rather uncertain, but is believed to be around 1,200 light-years. It was first described by the French astronomer and comet hunter Charles Messier who found it in 1764 and included it as no. 27 in his famous list of extended sky objects. Despite its class, the Dumbbell Nebula has nothing to do with planets. It consists of very rarified gas that has been ejected from the hot central star (well visible on this photo), now in one of the last evolutionary stages. The gas atoms in the nebula are excited (heated) by the intense ultraviolet radiation from this star and emit strongly at specific wavelengths.
The Dumbbell Nebula aka M27 is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae in the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1,000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen.
While hunting for comets in the skies above 18th century France, astronomer Charles Messier diligently kept a list of the things he encountered that were definitely not comets. This is number 27 on his now famous not-a-comet list. In fact, 21st century astronomers would identify it as a planetary nebula, but it’s not a planet either, even though it may appear round and planet-like in a small telescope. Messier 27 (M27) is an excellent example of a gaseous emission nebula created as a sun-like star runs out of nuclear fuel in its core. The nebula forms as the star’s outer layers are expelled into space, with a visible glow generated by atoms excited by the dying star’s intense but invisible ultraviolet light.
Known by the popular name of the Dumbbell Nebula, the beautifully symmetric interstellar gas cloud is over 2.5 light-years across and about 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. This impressive color composite highlights details within the well-studied central region and fainter, seldom imaged features in the nebula’s outer halo. It incorporates broad and narrowband images recorded using filters sensitive to emission from sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.