The Saturn nebula is located approximately 5000 light years away in the constellation of Aquarius. Its name derives from its odd shape, which resembles everyone’s favourite ringed planet seen edge-on.
But, despite the name, planetary nebulae such as this one have nothing to do with planets. The Saturn nebula was originally a low-mass star, which expanded into a red giant at the end of its life and began to shed its outer layers. This material was blown out by strong stellar winds and energised by ultraviolet radiation from the hot stellar core left behind, creating a circumstellar nebula of dust and brightly-coloured hot gas. At the heart of the Saturn nebula lies the doomed star, visible in this image, which is in the process of becoming a white dwarf.
Planetary nebulae are generally short-lived; the Saturn nebula will last only a few tens of thousands of years before expanding and cooling to such an extent that it becomes invisible to us. The central star will then fade as it becomes a hot white dwarf.
This colorful image was captured by the powerful MUSE instrument on the European Space Organisation’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), as part of a study which mapped the dust inside a planetary nebula for the first time.
Curated content from the editorial staff at Cosmos Magazine.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.