Backyard Observatory

NASA Just Unveiled Two Spectacular Images of 'Stars Gone Haywire' From Hubble

The images of two nebulae are absolutely stunning.

NASA Hubble butterfly nebula image
Edited - NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

The Hubble Space Telescope has been revealing spectacular views of the universe for 30 years, but the 30-year celebration that took place earlier in 2020 does not mark an endpoint. On June 18, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) shared two new images of planetary nebulae captured by the orbital telescope.

Pictured are the nebulae NGC 6302, called the Butterfly Nebula, and NGC 7027, called the "Jewel Bug" nebula. The ESA's announcement says these "are among the dustiest planetary nebulae known and both contain unusually large masses of gas, which made them an interesting pair for study in parallel by a team of researchers."

NASA hubble nebulae image
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope depicts NGC 6302, commonly known as the Butterfly Nebula. | NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

The Butterfly Nebula lies within the Milky Way, about 3,800 light-years from Earth inside the constellation Scorpius. Its "wingspan" is more than two light-years. So, while it looks relatively small on a screen, it's a massive structure. 

Hubble has imaged both objects before. However, it has been a long time, and this is the first time it has done so with the Wide Field Camera 3 instrument, allowing for observations in near-ultraviolet to near-infrared light. It reveals streams that would be invisible to the naked eye. "These new multi-wavelength Hubble observations provide the most comprehensive view to date of both of these spectacular nebulae," Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology, leader of the new study, said in a statement. "As I was downloading the resulting images, I felt like a kid in a candy store."

Hubble nebulae images NASA
This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope depicts NGC 7027, or the “Jewel Bug” nebula. | NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

Researchers are investigating the pair and their "unprecedented levels of complexity," studying the changes in jets and gas bubbles peeling off of the stars that live in the center of the nebulae. The amount of detail Hubble has provided allows researchers to see the history of shock waves. These are usually created, ESA says, by stellar winds slamming into a nebula and drawing up the gas and dust being ejected by the chaotic stars at the nebula's core. 

Additionally, scientists are studying these objects in tandem because of their unique shapes. "Researchers suspect that at the heart of each nebula were two stars orbiting around each other," the announcement says. There's significant scientific value in the observations, but they're also gorgeous images that create a beautifully stark contrast with the violence and chaos taking place around these stars.  

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.
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