Image credit: A. Zijlstra (UMIST) et al., ESA, NASA
- NGC 6302, or the Butterfly Nebula, is a mesmerizing and complex planetary nebula located in Scorpius, around 3,800 light years away from Earth.
- The nebula’s striking butterfly shape is a result of the star’s outflow of material interacting with surrounding dust and gas, forming bipolar lobes.
- The central star, one of the hottest known in the galaxy, emits intense ultraviolet radiation, causing the nebula to glow.
- NGC 6302’s alignment with other bipolar planetary nebulae near the galactic core remains an intriguing astronomical mystery.
- Despite being known since 1888, the Butterfly Nebula continues to captivate astronomers, offering new insights into the mysteries of the universe.
The Butterfly Nebula, scientifically known as NGC 6302, is a captivating and enigmatic celestial wonder located in the constellation of Scorpius, approximately 3,800 light years away from Earth. Its name is derived from its mesmerizing resemblance to a butterfly, with ethereal blues and hues of purple and red gracing its wingspan, stretching an impressive three light years. This breathtaking planetary nebula stands out as one of the most complex and intriguing structures ever observed in its class.
Planetary nebulae like NGC 6302 are born when Sun-like stars near the end of their life cycle begin to expel their outer layers and release gas at high velocities. The central star of the Butterfly Nebula, one of the hottest known stars in the galaxy, boasts an astounding surface temperature of around 222,204°C. However, this star remains obscured from direct view by dust clouds, glowing radiantly in ultraviolet wavelengths. Surrounded by a dense disc of dust and gas at its equator, the star’s outflow of material takes on the striking bipolar butterfly shape, akin to an hourglass.
NGC 6302’s central star, with a mass about 0.64 times that of the Sun, is evolving into a white dwarf. Emitting copious amounts of ultraviolet radiation, it is this energy that illuminates the nebula, causing it to glow beautifully. The nebula’s shape, characterized by two primary lobes and possibly an earlier pair from a previous phase of mass loss, is believed to be influenced by the rotation of the central star or star system, combined with jets propelling mass outward from the star’s orbit.
Discovered in 1888, the Butterfly Nebula has fascinated astronomers for over a century. American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard conducted the first known study of the object in 1907, sketching and describing its extraordinary features. More recent investigations, notably through the Hubble Space Telescope, have revealed further peculiarities, such as its alignment with other bipolar planetary nebulae near the galactic core, despite their differing locations, compositions, and histories.
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This sharp and colorful close-up of the dying star’s nebula was recorded in 2009 by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, installed during the final shuttle servicing mission. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star’s dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius). Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble
Credits NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)Credits NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble; Processing: William Ostling
Credit: The University of Arizona
Image Credit: Jan Scheers