Observatories routinely release "holiday themed" heavenly photos come late December, and this time the Hubble Space Telescope bears good cheer for 2012 in the form of a cosmic Christmas ornament.
The Hubble photo depicts a planetary nebula that resembles a ribbon and glass bauble. While past holiday seasons have brought us a cosmic wreath, a nebula as snow-angel and an orb-like pulsar (spinning star) that resembles an ornament, this year's photo is a little more on the abstract side.
The central, circular shape of the nebula, called NGC 5189, can be seen as an ornament made of blown glass, and the reddish knotted structure that flows around the middle looks like a tangled ribbon that holds the ornament in place.
A planetary nebula is one of the last stages in the life of a mid-size star like our sun. The dying star sloughs off its outer layers and shoots them out into the universe, resulting in the "ribbon-like" filaments surrounding the middle of the star. At the center of the nebula is a densely packed white dwarf star whose mass is stuffed into a volume about the size of Earth, but the entire planetary nebula is the size of our solar system.
Although the sun might be destined to meet the same fate as this ornamental nebula, our closest star won't run out of fuel for at least another 5 billion years.
Launched in 1990, Hubble orbits the Earth snapping high resolution images of nebulas and other bodies in our galaxy and beyond. Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 took this photo of NGC 5188 using specific filters adjusted to capture the colors of oxygen, hydrogen and fluorescing sulfur atoms.