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Hubble spots cosmic butterfly, wings of Twin Jet Nebula

The planetary nebula, also known as M2-9, was first discovered by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski in 1947.

By Brooks Hays
The Twin Jet Nebula. Photo by ESA/Hubble
The Twin Jet Nebula. Photo by ESA/Hubble

PARIS, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- Metamorphosis is happening in outer space. The Twin Jet Nebula is spreading its wings, emerging as a cosmic butterfly.

Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged the brilliant spectacle that is the Twin Jet Nebula. Aesthetically, the nebula appears to be having a late-career renaissance -- bright, colorful and full of energy. But scientifically, the nebula -- or more accurately, the binary star system at its center -- is dying.

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Having spent millions of years as a healthy star system, the nebula's center has begun to slow down and collapse. As it does, the dying star (the larger of the two) is expelling its outer layers, which can be seen streaming out in opposite directions, forming the wings of the cosmic butterfly. Within these two wing-like lobes are the "twin jets," spitting out gas at speeds north of 620,000 miles per hour.

Scientists say the winged shape is a result of the nebula's binary center. As the white dwarf orbits its dying companion, it pulls the fading star's shed layers in a bipolar pattern. With its outer layers gone, the dying star's inner core shines brightly, illuminating the twin jets of gas.

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Researchers suggest the metamorphosis has only just begun. The wings of the nebula are expected to continue to grow as the two stars spin about each other. The two stars circle each other once every 100 years.

"This rotation not only creates the wings of the butterfly and the two jets, it also allows the white dwarf to strip gas from its larger companion," ESA researchers explained, "which then forms a large disc of material around the stars, extending out as far as 15 times the orbit of Pluto!"

The planetary nebula, also known as M2-9, was first discovered by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski in 1947. It lies some 2,100 light-years away from Earth's solar system, found within the constellation Ophiuchus.

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