The Saturn nebula

The spectacular planetary nebula ngc 7009.
The spectacular planetary nebula NGC 7009, or the Saturn nebula, emerges from the darkness like a series of oddly-shaped bubbles, lit up in glorious pinks and blues.
ESO / J. Walsh

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.

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