Space Telescope Science Institute

March 19, 1998


The Hubble Space Telescope continus to capture stunning colorful snapshots of stellar burnout. These images reveal the beauty and complexity of planetary nebulae. The image of NGC 7027, for example, is one of the first infrared views of planetary neublae taken with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). In this image, NICMOS peers through the dusty core of a young planetary nebulae to reveal the bright central star. Other pictures taken by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 catch the birth of planetary nebulae as they emerge from their cocoons of gas and dust.

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The Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) has captured a glimpse of a brief stage in the burnout of NGC 7027, a medium-mass star like our sun. The infrared image (on the left) shows a young planetary nebula in a state of rapid transition. This image alone reveals important new information. When astronomers combine this photo with an earlier image taken in visible light, they have a more complete picture of the final stages of star life.

NGC 7027 is going through spectacular death throes as it evolves into what astronomers call a "planetary nebula." The term planetary nebula came about not because of any real association with planets, but because in early telescopes these objects resembled the disks of planets.

A star can become a planetary nebula after it depletes its nuclear fuel - hydrogen and helium - and begins puffing away layers of material. The material settles into a wind of gas and dust blowing away from the dying star. This NICMOS image captures the young planetary nebula in the middle of a very short evolutionary phase, lasting perhaps less than 1,000 years. During this phase, intense ultraviolet radiation from the central star lights up a region of gas surrounding it. (This gas is glowing brightly because it has been made very hot by the star's intense ultraviolet radiation.) Encircling this hot gas is a cloud of dust and cool molecular hydrogen gas that can only be seen by an infrared camera. The molecular gas is being destroyed by ultraviolet light from the central star.

THE INFRARED VIEW -- The composite color image of NGC 7027 (on the left) is among the first data of a planetary nebula taken with NICMOS. This picture is actually composed of three separate images taken at different wavelengths. The red color represents cool molecular hydrogen gas, the most abundant gas in the universe.

The image reveals the central star, which is difficult to see in images taken with visible light. Surrounding it is an elongated region of gas and dust cast off by the star. This gas (appearing as white) has a temperature of several tens of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit. The object has two "cones" of cool molecular hydrogen gas (the red material) glowing in the infrared. The gas has been energized by ultraviolet light from the star - a process known as fluorescence. Most of the material shed by the star remains outside of the bright regions. It is invisible in this image because the layers of material in and near the bright regions are still shielding it from the central star's intense radiation.

NGC 7027 is one of the smallest objects of its kind to be imaged by the Hubble telescope. However, the region seen here is approximately 14,000 times the average distance between Earth and the sun.

THE INFRARED AND VISIBLE LIGHT VIEW -- This visible and infrared light picture of NGC 7027 (on the right) provides a more complete view of how this planetary nebula is being shaped, revealing steps in its evolution.

This image is composed of three exposures, one from the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) and two from NICMOS. The blue represents the WFPC2 image; the green and red, NICMOS exposures. The white is emission from the hot gas surrounding the central star; the red and pink represent emission from cool molecular hydrogen gas. In effect, the colors represent the three layers in the material ejected by the dying star. Each layer depicts a change in temperature, beginning with a hot, bright central region, continuing with a thin boundary zone where molecular hydrogen gas is glowing and being destroyed, and ending with a cool, blue outer region of molecular gas and dust.

NICMOS has allowed astronomers to clearly see the transition layer from hot, glowing atomic gas to cold molecular gas. The origin of the newly seen filamentary structures is not yet understood. The transition region is clearly seen as the pink- and red-colored cool molecular hydrogen gas. An understanding of the atomic and chemical processes taking place in this transition region are of importance to other areas of astronomy as well, including star formation regions. WFPC2 is best used to study the hot, glowing gas, which is the bright, oval-shaped region surrounding the central star. With WFPC2 we also see material beyond this core with light from the central star that is reflecting off dust in the cold gas surrounding the nebula. Combining exposures from the two cameras allows astronomers to clearly see the way the nebula is being shaped by winds and radiation. This information will help astronomers understand the complexities of stellar evolution. NGC 7027 is located about 3,000 light-years from the sun in the direction of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.

Credits: William B. Latter (SIRTF Science Center/Caltech) and NASA

Other team investigators are: J. L. Hora (Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory), J. H. Bieging (Steward Observatory), D. M. Kelly (University of Wyoming), A. Dayal (JPL/Caltech), A.G.G.M. Tielens (University of Groningen), and S. Trammell (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)



The Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 has captured images of the birth of two planetary nebulae as they emerge from wrappings of gas and dust, like butterflies breaking out of their cocoons.

These images highlight a fleeting phase in the stellar burnout process, occurring just before dying stars are transformed into planetary nebulae. The left-hand image is the Cotton Candy nebula, IRAS 17150-3224; the right-hand image, the Silkworm nebula, IRAS 17441-2411. Called proto-planetary nebulae, these dying stars have been caught in a transition phase between a red giant and a planetary nebula. This phase is only about 1,000 years long, very short in comparison to the 1 billion-year lifetime of a star. These images provide the earliest snapshots of the transition process.

Studying images of proto-planetary nebulae is important to understanding the process of star death. A star begins to die when it has exhausted its thermonuclear fuel - hydrogen and helium. The star then becomes bright and cool (red giant phase) and swells to several tens of times its normal size. It begins puffing thin shells of gas off into space. These shells become the star's cocoon. In the Hubble images, the shells are the concentric rings seen around each nebula.

But the images also reveal the nebulae breaking out from those shells. The butterfly-like wings of gas and dust are a common shape of planetary nebulae. Such butterfly shapes are created by the "interacting winds" process, in which a more recent "fast wind" - material propelled by radiation from the hot central star - punches a hole in the cocoon, allowing the nebula to emerge. (This "interacting wind" theory was first proposed by Dr. Sun Kwok to explain the origin of planetary nebulae, and has been subsequently proven successful in explaining their shapes.)

The nebulae are being illuminated by light from the invisible central star, which is then reflected toward us. We are viewing the nebulae edge-on, where the direct starlight is blocked by the dusty cocoon. Otherwise, the starlight would overwhelm the nebular light, making it very difficult to see the butterfly-shaped nebula. In a few hundred years, intense ultraviolet radiation from the central star will energize the surrounding gas, causing it to glow brightly, and a planetary nebula is born.

These observations were made with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 using three filters: yellow-green, blue, and near-infrared. The images were taken in 1997 by Sun Kwok and in 1996 by Matt Bobrowsky.

Credits: Sun Kwok and Kate Su (University of Calgary), Bruce Hrivnak (Valparaiso University), and NASA


This Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 image of NGC 6818 shows two distinct layers of gas (with dust): a spherical outer region and a brighter, vase-shaped interior "bubble." Astronomers believe that a fast wind - material propelled by radiation from the hot central star - is creating the inner elongated shape. The central star of the planetary nebula appears as a tiny blue dot. The material in the wind is traveling so fast that it smashes through older, slower-moving stellar debris, causing a "blowout" at both ends of the bubble (lower right and upper left).

This nebula looks like a twin of NGC 3918, another planetary nebula that has been observed by the Hubble telescope. The structure of NGC 3918 is remarkably similar to that of NGC 6818. It has an outer spherical envelope and an inner, brighter, elongated bubble. A fast-moving wind also appears to have created an orifice at one end (bottom right-hand corner) of the inner bubble. There are even faint wisps of material that were probably blown out of this hole. In the opposite direction (top left-hand corner), there is a protrusion that seems on the verge of breaking through to form a hole.

By finding and studying such similar objects, astronomers hope to learn crucial details about the evolutionary history of planetary nebulae.

The Hubble telescope observation was taken March 10, 1997. This picture is a composite of images taken with three filters that are representative of the true colors of the object. Two of these are, respectively, in the light of a red and a blue spectral line of hydrogen - the major constituent of the nebula. The third image is in the light of a luminous green line due to doubly ionized oxygen.

NGC 6818 is about 6,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius. The nebula has a diameter of about 0.5 light-years.

Credits: Robert Rubin (NASA Ames Research Center), Reginald Dufour and Matt Browning (Rice University), Patrick Harrington (University of Maryland), and NASA

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