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Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have obtained images
of the strikingly unusual planetary nebula, NGC 6751. Glowing in
the constellation Aquila like a giant eye, the nebula is a cloud of
gas ejected several thousand years ago from the hot star visible in
"Planetary nebulae" are named after their round shapes as seen
visually in small telescopes, and have nothing else to do with
planets. They are shells of gas thrown off by stars of masses
similar to that of our own Sun, when the stars are nearing the ends
of their lives. The loss of the outer layers of the star into space
exposes the hot stellar core, whose strong ultraviolet radiation
then causes the ejected gas to fluoresce as the planetary nebula.
Our own Sun is predicted to eject its planetary nebula some 6
billion years from now.
The Hubble observations were obtained in 1998 with the Wide Field
Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) by a team of astronomers led by Arsen
Hajian of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. The Hubble
Heritage team, working at the Space Telescope Science Institute in
Baltimore, has prepared this color rendition by combining the Hajian
team's WFPC2 images taken through three different color filters that
isolate nebular gases of different temperatures.
The nebula shows several remarkable and poorly understood features.
Blue regions mark the hottest glowing gas, which forms a roughly
circular ring around the central stellar remnant. Orange and red
show the locations of cooler gas. The cool gas tends to lie in long
streamers pointing away from the central star, and in a surrounding,
tattered-looking ring at the outer edge of the nebula. The origin of
these cooler clouds within the nebula is still uncertain, but the
streamers are clear evidence that their shapes are affected by
radiation and stellar winds from the hot star at the center. The
star's surface temperature is estimated at a scorching 140,000
degrees Celsius (250,000 degrees Fahrenheit).
Hajian and his team are scheduled to reobserve NGC 6751 with
Hubble's WFPC2 in 2001. Due to the expansion of the nebula, at a
speed of about 40 kilometers per second (25 miles per second), the
high resolution of Hubble's camera will reveal the slight increase
in the size of the nebula since 1998. This measurement will allow
the astronomers to calculate an accurate distance to NGC 6751. In
the meantime, current estimates are that NGC 6751 is roughly 6,500
light-years from Earth. The nebula's diameter is 0.8 light-years,
some 600 times the diameter of our own solar system.
April 6, 2000
Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)