Hubble Celebrates 29th Birthday With A Stunning Photo Of The Southern Crab Nebula

NASA, ESA, and STScI

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 29 years old next week. Launched on April 24, 1990, the venerable spacecraft has spent close to three decades in orbit, scouring the skies with its inquisitive gaze and imaging the distant cosmos in a bid to help us unravel some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.

Each year on Hubble’s birthday, the mission’s team marks the special occasion by pointing the space telescope to a fascinating part of the sky and snapping a mesmerizing image in honor of the spacecraft’s long and fruitful life. For instance, in 2018, Hubble celebrated its 28th anniversary with a spectacular photo of the hypnotic Lagoon Nebula – a gargantuan and incredibly colorful structure sprawling some 4,000 light-years from Earth in the Sagittarius constellation, as reported by The Inquisitr at the time.

This year, Hubble kicked off the birthday celebration with a gorgeous photo of yet another awe-inspiring nebula, this time located deeper into the cosmic night. For its 29th birthday, the space telescope fixed its eye on the peculiar Southern Crab Nebula – an enigmatic hourglass-shaped celestial object lighting up the sky in the southern Centaurus constellation nearly 7,000 light-years from our home.

The exquisite photo was unveiled by NASA on Thursday and offers a “festive, colorful look at the tentacled Southern Crab Nebula.” Captured in March by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, the glorious image brings this majestic structure into focus in a more detailed way than ever before.

Image of the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Featured image credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

Also known as Hen 2-104, the Southern Crab Nebula owes its bizarre-looking structure to its unusual birth. Made up of symmetrical bubbles that seep out of a bright core and extend outward into the cosmos, the nebula was shaped by the action of two sibling stars residing within a double star system 6,849 light-years from Earth.

As NASA explains, the nebula appears to be created out of “two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system.”

The two stars at the heart of the nebula are found at different stages within their life cycle and represent an “aging red giant,” one that still has some spark in it, and a white dwarf – the stellar core remnant of a collapsed, dead star.

As the red giant burns through its fuel resources and keeps shedding its outer layers, the gas and dust material expelled by the star is pulled toward the white dwarf by gravity, encircling both stars in a disk of gas that stretches between them. This disk is what “constricts and directs the outflow of gas from the system,” giving the nebula its iconic hourglass shape.

“The bubbles of gas and dust appear brightest at the edges, giving the illusion of crab leg structures. These ‘legs’ are likely to be the places where the outflow slams into surrounding interstellar gas and dust, or possibly material which was earlier lost by the red giant star.”

According to NASA, the outflow of gas and dust that keeps the nebula running “may only last a few thousand years, a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the system.”

“This means that the outer structure may be just thousands of years old, but the inner hourglass must be a more recent outflow event.”

Annotated image of the hourglass-shaped Southern Crab Nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Featured image credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

In the end, the red giant star will inevitably run out of fuel and collapse into a white dwarf. When that happens, the two stars will go on to cast their light onto the shell of gas surrounding them, ending their life cycle in a planetary nebula.