Some 1,400 light-years from Earth, a dying star is slowly dissipating into the cosmos, peeling off its outer layers and sending them adrift in orbit around itself. As they float away from the fading stellar core, these streaks of gas are ionized by powerful ultraviolet radiation — pulsating outward from the moribund celestial body — which makes them glow in the dark cosmic night.
This stunning spectacle marking the end of a star’s life is called a planetary nebula — a ring-shaped shell of gas surrounding a dim relic of its former self.
While gloomy, given their significance, planetary nebulae are nevertheless wondrous to behold — as seen in the latest photo unveiled by the European Southern Observatory on its website. The breathtaking image showcases a planetary nebula called ESO 577-24, a dying star whose simmering remains illuminate the dark cosmic night in the direction of the Virgo constellation (“The Virgin”).
Since the nebula is so distant from our planet, its ghostly glow remains hidden to the naked eye — and can only be observed with the help of a telescope. This is why the planetary nebula was recently imaged by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), whose sharp vision managed to spot the ethereal tendrils of ESO 577-24, and was able to unravel their eerie beauty in a gorgeous photograph.
These dazzling swirls of ionized gas are described by ESO staff as “the last breath of a dying star.” In the photo release, ESO officials note that “the faint, ephemeral glow” coming from the ESO 577-24 will be short-lived, as the nebula will persist for only “around 10,000 years, a blink of an eye in astronomical terms.”
As the Inquisitr previously reported, about 90 percent of the sun-like stars in the universe end up as planetary nebulae. Once these stars deplete their hydrogen reserves, they flare up into red giants and later collapse into white dwarfs — living out their twilight years as mere ghosts of what they used to be.
The same fate awaits our sun as well. A study published last year in the journal Nature Astronomy detailed that the sun will end its long life in a fiery blaze — flaring up into a bright planetary nebula that will last for 10,000 years. This will destroy Earth in the process, as the Inquisitr previously reported.
The planetary nebula ESO 577-24, and its evanescent shell of glowing gas, were photographed by ESO‘s VLT as part of the observatory’s Cosmic Gems program — an educational and outreach initiative focused on providing the public with fascinating space photos.
The previous celestial object imaged for this project was the Skull and Crossbones Nebula. Nicknamed the “pirate of the southern skies,” the dazzling nebula made for a spectacular snapshot, one which the ESO released last October — just in time for Halloween, as the Inquisitr reported at the time.