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Mystery Photo

What in the world is it?

Mystery Photo
Don’t peek at the answer until you’ve given this a good try! Then, scroll down a bit and the truth will be revealed to you.

Photo Credit: (NASA – The Hubble Heritage Team)

An iridescent cocoon? A cosmic butterfly? Well, yes, it’s sort of both. What you see is material being blown away from a dying star as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. The object, known as IC 4406, is a planetary nebula – so called because through a small telescope the object appears as a soft green blob, which resembles the planet Uranus. The butterfly wings of gas and dust is somewhat of an illusion – a matter of perspective. If we could fly around IC 4406 in a starship, we would see that the gas and dust form a vast donut of material streaming outward from the dying star. From Earth, we are viewing the donut from the side. This side view allows us to see the intricate tendrils of dust that have been compared to the eye’s retina.

One of the most interesting features of IC 4406 is the irregular lattice of dark lanes that crisscross the center of the nebula. These lanes are about 160 astronomical units wide (1 astronomical unit is the distance between the Earth and Sun). We see the lanes in silhouette because they have a density of dust and gas that is a thousand times higher than the rest of the nebula. The dust lanes are like an open mesh veil that has been wrapped around the bright donut.

The fate of these dense knots of material is unknown. Will they survive the nebula’s expansion and become dark denizens of the space between stars or simply dissipate?


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