Planetary nebulas are in fact material ejected from stars, as their wispy bits and pieces are blown outward into space in the stars' death throes, Spitzer scientists said.
"Some might call the images haunting," Joseph Hora of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the principal investigator of the Spitzer observing program, said. "We look to the pictures for a sense of the history of the stars' mass loss, and to learn how they evolved over time."
Planetary nebulas, erroneously named such by William Herschel in 1785 for their resemblance to planets, come in an array of shapes.
The three images from Spitzer include a brain-like orb called PMR 1 nicknamed the "Exposed Cranium" nebula by Spitzer scientists; NGC 3242, also known as the Ghost of Jupiter, 1,400 light-years away in the constellation Hydra; and the Little Dumbbell Nebula, so named for its butterfly shape.
The Spitzer Space Telescope mission is managed for NASA's Science Mission Directorate by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
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