Also known as the Eight-Burst Nebula — or, if we want to be all boring and technical, NGC 3132 — this cosmic beauty is located some 2,000 light-years from Earth. It's not actually a regular nebula at all, but instead it's what's known as a planetary nebula, the result of a star dying and venting its remaining gas into the surrounding space.

Unlike actual nebulae, which endure for eons and lead to the formation of several new stars, planetary nebulae are smaller, shorter-lived, and mark the end of a star's life. In this case, that star is the much dimmer of the two lights found at the center of this image. The Southern Ring Nebula surrounds a binary star system in which one of the two stars has already died, ejected its gas, and formed this incredible cosmic vista that will last for the next few thousand years. While that star now leads a quiet, near-eternal retirement as a faint, ultra-dense white dwarf star, its partner star gets to bask in the glory, shining brightly in the middle of a beautiful planetary nebula it played no part in creating. I'd find this all deeply unfair, if we weren't, you know, talking about a couple stars here. NASA's Astronomy Photo of the Day site has some more details:

Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this reprocessed color picture, the hot purplish pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.


Via NASA. Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing - Donald Waid.

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