Known as the "Butterfly Nebula," Hubble was recently retrained to study NGC 6302 in its full spectrum of light, from near-ultraviolet to near-infrared, helping researchers better grasp the dynamics at work in its technicolor "wings" of gas. An S-shaped pattern of near-infrared emission from singly ionized iron has been observed from lower left to upper right, as revealed by the current study's findings. A recent gas ejection from the core star system is presumably responsible for this iron emission, which is traveling at a much faster rate.
The nebula's appearance is determined by the star or stars in its center. Over the last few thousand years, they have periodically ejected layers of gas in their death throes. NGC 6302's "wings" are regions of gas that have been heated to over 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit and are tearing through space at over 600,000 miles per hour. In the constellation Scorpius, NGC 6302 is located between 2,500 and 3,800 light-years distant.
How did it get that shape?
The Butterfly Nebula was just photographed by Hubble and shared as a stunning new image. Its delicate gas clouds spread outward like wings, perfectly encapsulating the form and spirit of its eponym. Some scientists believe that before the Butterfly Nebula became a nebula, it had a binary star system at its center, revolving in the plane that is currently recognized as the butterfly's body. On this middle plane, a dense, oblate cloud of dust orbited with the stars.
The biggest of the two stars eventually depleted its fuel supply. The star's core collapsed in on itself because it could no longer support its own weight due to the outward pressure caused by fusion. As it shrank, the pressure and temperature at its core increased, rekindling the fusion process. When the core's push-back was abruptly reversed, the star's outer layers were flung outward. They shot off in all directions from the star, but the thick disk of dust slowed the gas as it traveled along the orbital plane.
The outcome was the creation of the butterfly's wings, which were created by two opposing jets of hot gas rushing away from the star at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. They studied radiation from UV through infrared wavelengths in the most recent image, learning more about this strange object than ever before. Ionized iron streaks can be seen across the bottom of the left wing and the top of the right wing in the new image. Scientists aren't sure why it doesn't have the same symmetry as the wings, but it could be a hint about the butterfly's hidden intricacies.
A number of riddles concerning the Butterfly Nebula remain unsolved: scientists aren't sure if their double star idea is true, for example. However, there is little doubt that the spectacular death of a star was the catalyst for the massive ejection of gas into the nebula's wings. The Butterfly Nebula's story is a tale of rebirth, much as the butterfly is a global symbol of transition.
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