Astronomers have used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to image the tiny planetary nebula NGC 6886. These celestial objects signal the final death throes of mid-sized stars (up to about eight times the mass of the Sun); when such a star exhausts its supply of hydrogen fuel, the outer layers begin to expand and cool, which creates an envelope of gas and dust that shrouds the dying star. However, the star doesn't go down without a fight, finding alternative ways to prevent it from collapsing under its own gravity and emerging as a white dwarf. In the process, the star's surface temperature increases and it is eventually hot enough to emit strong ultraviolet radiation and make the cocoon of gas glow as a stunning planetary nebula.
Stellar death isn't quick and painless: the planetary nebula stage typically lasts several tens of thousands of years. By studying the elements that are present in the nebula today, astronomers can determine the original chemical make-up of the star. Studies suggest that the star belonging to NGC 6886 may have originally been similar to the Sun, containing similar quantities of carbon, nitrogen and neon, although heavier elements, such as sulphur, were less plentiful.
Keen amateur astronomers with mid-level telescopes will find it a rewarding challenge to track down NGC 6886 in the small constellation of Sagitta. It is tiny, but not particularly faint: high magnification, a good chart, a dark site and averted vision are needed to spot this elusive celestial jewel.
This picture was created by combining images taken using the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 on Hubble. Filters that let through emission from ionised nitrogen gas (F658N, coloured red), ionised oxygen (F502N, coloured blue) and a broadband yellow filter (F555W, coloured green, and also contributing to the blue) were used. The exposure times were 700 s, 600 s and 320 s respectively. The field of view is merely 30 arcseconds across.
A spectacular section of the well-known Eagle Nebula has been targeted by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. This collection of dazzling stars is called NGC 6611, an open star cluster that formed about 5.5 million years ago and is found approximately 6500 light-years from the Earth. It is a very young cluster, containing many hot, blue stars, whose fierce ultraviolet glow make the surrounding Eagle Nebula glow brightly. The cluster and the associated nebula together are also known as Messier 16.
Astronomers refer to areas like the Eagle Nebula as HII regions. This is the scientific notation for ionised hydrogen from which the region is largely made. Extrapolating far into the future, this HII region will eventually disperse, helped along by shockwaves from supernova explosions as the more massive young stars end their brief but brilliant lives.
In this image, dark patches can also be spotted, punctuating the stellar landscape. These areas of apparent nothingness are actually very dense regions of gas and dust, which obstruct light from passing through. Many of these may be hiding the sites of the early stages of star formation, before the fledgling stars clear away their surroundings and burst into view. Dark nebulae, large and small, are dotted throughout the Universe. If you look up to the Milky Way with the naked eye from a dark, remote site, you can easily spot some huge dark nebulae blocking the background starlight.
This picture was created from images from Hubble’s Wide Field Channel of the Advanced Camera for Surveys through the unusual combination of two near-infrared filters (F775W, coloured blue, and F850LP, coloured red). The image has also been subtly colourised using a ground-based image taken through more conventional filters. The Hubble exposure times were 2000 s in both cases and the field of view is about 3.2 arcminutes across.