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Hubble Nebula Photo Reveals Cosmic Christmas Ornament

Hubble Planetary Nebula Holiday
The Hubble Space Telescope brings good cheer with this festive holiday photo. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

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.

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Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a staff writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also serves as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. You can follow Miriam on Twitter and Google+.