BERLIN – A team of astronomers from the European Southern Observatory said on Wednesday they had successfully mapped the Saturn Nebula located in the Aquarius constellation known as the Water Bearer some 5,000 light years away from us in space.
This remarkable Nebula, whose name derives from its shape, somewhat resembling our Solar system’s iconic ringed planet seen head-on, appears in this optical data-rich tridimensional mapping image as a series of intricate dust-like structures.
The distant object, also known as NGC 7009, has oddly-shaped bubbles, shell-like forms, a surrounding halo and an unusual wave-like form in brilliant pinks and blues.
This astronomical feat was possible according to a statement published by the ESO, “thanks to the powerful MUSE (Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer) instrument installed at the observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Paranal, Chile.
The astronomical team led by ESO’s Jeremy Walsh hopes it will help to “better understand how planetary nebulae develop their strange shapes and symmetries” and “their role in the lives and deaths of low-mass stars.”
Also visible are two previously detected streams extending from either end of the nebula’s long axis, ending in bright “ansae” (“handles” in Latin).
The Saturn Nebula was a low-mass star, which expanded into a red giant at the end of its life-cycle, once nuclear fusion had exhausted all its hydrogen, and began shedding its outer layers.
This ejected material was then blown out by strong stellar winds and energized by ultraviolet radiation from the hot stellar core left behind, creating a circumstellar nebula of dust and brightly-colored hot gas.
The Saturn Nebula will only last a few tens of thousands of years before expanding and cooling until it becomes invisible to us.
At the heart of the Saturn Nebula lies the doomed star, visible in the image as a tiny white point, while in the process of becoming a white dwarf – a very dense star indeed given that a teaspoonful of white dwarf matter, on Earth, would weigh on the bathroom scales around five tons.
The shining white dwarf will then become a black dwarf and slowly fade-away.
Planetary nebulae are relatively common as astronomers estimate there are between 20,000 and 50,000 in our home galaxy of the Milky Way.