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Hubble Captures an Hourglass Filled with Blowtorches in Space

It may have turned 25 this year, but the Hubble Space Telescope certainly isn’t slowing down. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has orbited our planet over 130,000 times, and its latest image is one hell of a stunner.

With its opposing clouds of gas, The Twin Jet Nebula (PN M2-9) looks like it should contain the sands of time. It’s a gorgeous example of what is known as a “bipolar planetary nebula,” which forms when the central object is not a single star, but rather a system of two.

“Though studies suggest that the stellar outburst that formed the lobes occurred just 1,200 years ago, the larger star is approaching the end of its days,” says NASA. “It has already ejected its outer layers of gas into space, whereas its partner is further evolved, and is a small white dwarf.”

While the stars circle each other, which takes about 100 years, the white dwarf strips gas from its sister. As they rotate, this push-pull of gas forms the lobes, or “wings” of the nebula. The resulting clouds of star stuff are illuminated by the stars’ dying light, seen here in a brilliant array of colors.

It’s as serene an image as any, but don’t let the “ooh-ahh” factor fool you – this nebula is anything but calm. If you look closely within the wings, extending horizontally outward, you’ll see two faint blue patches. These are the jets that give the nebula its name, violently streaming into the great-wide forever, like two 620,000-mile-per-hour blowtorches.

twin jet nebula-old-8272015

This isn’t the first time we’re peered into this cosmic time piece: back in ’97 Hubble snapped the above image of the nebula’s lobes. But as you can see, the onboard camera has since gotten a serious face-lift. The addition of a spectrograph, which spreads out the light gathered by a telescope so that it can be analyzed, allows NASA scientists to learn about these celestial bodies like never before.

“We can now determine chemical composition and abundances, temperature, radial velocity, rotational velocity, and magnetic fields,” says NASA. And because they combine the spectrograph with a camera, we get to witness this brilliant light show in all its glory. From the near-infrared all the way to the ultraviolet.


IMAGES: ESA/Hubble & NASA, acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

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