Two stunning nebulas shine as one in this colorful view captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and released by NASA just in time for the holidays.
The nebula pair, known collectively as NGC 248, is located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is 200,000 light-years from Earth and one of the Milky Way's two dwarf galaxy neighbors.
In addition to boasting festive colors, the nebulas of NGC 248 contain a treasure trove of science for astronomers. This image was captured as part of the Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Evolution (SMIDGE) study, which aims to improve scientists' understanding of the differences in dust in galaxies that have a lower supply of heavy elements needed to actually make that dust. NASA officials wrote in a statement. The Small Magellanic Cloud, for example, has between one-tenth and one-fifth the amount of heavy elements as our Milky Way galaxy. [Space Christmas: Festive Photos of Cosmic Beauty]
Scientists hope Hubble's observations of NGC 248 will help them understand the role of space dust in the early universe.
"It is important for understanding the history of our own galaxy, too," the study's principal investigator, Karin Sandstrom, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego's Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences, said in the NASA statement. "Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars."
Though NASA released the new image Tuesday (Dec. 20), the data used to make the image was collected by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys in September 2015.
The nebulas of NGC 248 were discovered in 1834 by astronomer Sir John Herschel. Together, they cover a region of space 60 light-years long and 20 light-years across; one light-year is the distance light travels in a year (about 6 trillion miles, or 10 trillion kilometers).
The Hubble Space Telescope has been capturing spectacular images of the universe for more than 26 years. It was launched by NASA in 1990 and is a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency.