A star's last gasp at the final stage of its life has been frozen for all time in a new photo by the Hubble Space Telescope.
In the photo, Hubble took a deep look at NGC 6210, a curious planetary nebula located about 6,500 light-years away, in the constellation of Hercules. [New Hubble photo of dying star]
At the heart of NGC 6210 is a star slightly less massive than our sun that is in the last fitful stage of its life cycle. The star's death spasms have kicked off multiple shells of material with different degrees of symmetry, giving the NGC 6210 nebula its odd, bulbous shape.
The new Hubble image shows the inner region of the planetary nebula in unprecedented detail, where the central star is surrounded by a thin, bluish bubble that reveals a delicate filamentary structure. The glowing bubble appears to be intertwined with an asymmetric, reddish gas formation where holes, filaments and pillars are clearly visible.
Planetary nebulas are shells of gas and dust expelled by stars near the end of their lives. They are typically seen around stars comparable or smaller in size than the sun. Planetary nebulas are not related to planets as their name suggests, but instead earned the moniker because they resembled giant planets when viewed through early telescopes.
A star's life ends when it runs out of fuel for its thermonuclear engine. The estimated lifetime for a sun-like star is about 10 billion years.
When a star is about to die, it becomes unstable and ejects its outer layers to form a planetary nebula. What's left behind is a tiny, but very hot, star remnant known as a white dwarf.
The white dwarf inside NGC 6210, which is visible in the center of the Hubble image, will cool down and fade very slowly.
According to stellar evolution theory, our own sun will experience a similar fate in approximately 5 billion years.
NGC 6210 was discovered in 1825 by the German astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve. While it appears as only a tiny disc when viewed by a small telescope, the planetary nebula is actually fairly bright.
This picture was created from images taken with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.
The Hubble Space Telescope has been scanning the cosmos for more than 20 years. NASA launched the iconic space observatory in April 1990.
Since then, several space shuttle missions have visited the space telescope to make repairs and upgrade its instruments. The fifth and final shuttle flight to overhaul Hubble occurred in May 2009.
- The 10 Most Amazing Hubble Discoveries
- Video: Death of the Sun
- Images - 20 Years of the Hubble Space Telescope