'Butterfly' nebula glides across a starry sky in beautiful new video

A mesmerizing new image shows a "space butterfly" appearing to soar against a background of stars.

The nebula, or cloud of gas, is more officially known as NGC 2899; it shows in intricate detail thanks to new observations from the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile.

"This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars," ESO said in a statement.

Gallery: Strange Nebula Shapes, What Do You See?

A new image taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile shows a butterfly-like nebula in stunning detail. (Image credit: ESO)

The term "planetary nebula" is a holdover from early telescopic astronomy, when the first such objects observed were compared to the planet Uranus. Scientists now know that planetary nebulas aren't planetary at all and occur when a dying star sloughs off its outer layers of gas, which spread into space. 

The gas glows in the light of the slowly fading star, in this case reaching temperatures of more than 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit (10,000 degrees Celsius). In the new image, hydrogen gas is shown in red and oxygen in blue.

Related: 50 fabulous deep-space nebula photos

NGC 2899 is somewhere between 3,000 and 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Vela, or the Sails. Embedded in the gas are two central stars in an unusual arrangement, according to ESO. The second star in the pair interferes with the gas flung out by the first, creating the symmetry on display in the image, which is only found in between 10% and 20% of planetary nebulas, according to the statement. 

Scientists obtained the image using the visual and near-ultraviolet Focal Reducer and Low Dispersion Spectrograph (FORS) instrument installed on one of the four 27-foot (8.2-meter) telescopes that comprise the Very Large Telescope. FORS has also been used to look at light from gravitational wave sources, to examine the first interstellar asteroid, and to study other planetary nebulas, ESO said.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • rod
    The article says "NGC 2899 is somewhere between 3,000 and 6,500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Vela, or the Sails."

    Distance is important to know for accurate astronomical calculations. Example, a nebula with angular size 1.1 arcminute at 2000 pc distance, can be 2.0873 LY in diameter. Different distances for the same target can make for real differences in measurements, e.g. rate of expansion, age calculations.