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Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Death in Planetary Nebula
HST image of the Whirlpool Galaxy and companion.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

Ordinary stars like our Sun live undistinguished lives. They steadily churn out heat and light for billions of years. Oddly enough, their lives become more exciting when they run out of hydrogen fuel and reach retirement age. This is when these stars begin to stand out. They begin shedding their layers of material, forming beautiful shapes. This celestial object for example, was once an ordinary star that evolved into a delicate-looking butterfly.

The Butterfly Nebula, catalogued as NGC 6302, was a dying star that was once about five times the mass of the Sun. It has ejected its layer of gases and is now unleashing a stream of ultraviolet radiation that is making the ejected material glow. This object is an example of a planetary nebula, so-named because many of them have a round appearance resembling that of a planet when viewed through a small telescope.

NGC 6302 lies within our Milky Way galaxy, roughly 3,800 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius. The glowing gas is the star’s outer layers, expelled over about 2,200 years. The central star itself cannot be seen, because it is hidden within a doughnut-shaped ring of dust, which appears as a dark band pinching the nebula in the center. The “butterfly” stretches for more than two light-years, which is about half the distance from the Sun to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

The Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), a new camera aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, snapped this image of the planetary nebula. WFC3 was installed by NASA astronauts in May 2009, during the servicing mission to upgrade and repair the 19-year-old Hubble telescope.