Located 1,500 light years away and measuring four light-years across, the gorgeous Medusa Nebula offers a sneak preview of what our Sun will look like when it finally enters into its final death throes.
This image, captured by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, is the most detailed yet of the Medusa Nebula. Though relatively large, it’s quite dim and difficult to observe.
It’s important to note that the stellar core of the Medusa Nebula is not that bright star you see in the centre of this image — that’s a foreground star called TYC 776-1339-1. Medusa’s central star is a dimmer, bluish star lying just off-centre of the crescent shape and in the right-hand part of this image. (Caption and image credit: ESO)
A release from the European Space Agency explains the planetary nebula’s features:
Medusa was a hideous creature with snakes in place of hair. These snakes are represented by the serpentine filaments of glowing gas in this nebula. The red glow from hydrogen and the fainter green emission from oxygen gas extends well beyond this frame, forming a crescent shape in the sky. The ejection of mass from stars at this stage of their evolution is often intermittent, which can result in fascinating structures within planetary nebulae.
Eventually, our Sun will go through a similar process. In about 5 billion years, its outer layers will slowly drift into space, producing similar colorful streams. The planetary nebula process doesn’t take very long, typically on the order of thousands of years — a mere blip in a star’s total lifespan. Following this phase, the near-dead stars slowly burn out as white dwarfs.
Image credits: ESO