A White Dwarf Makes a Butterfly

NGC 6302

The Butterfly Nebula

NCG 6302 is known as the Butterfly Nebula.  What makes this nebula so intriguing is that is has two distinct lobes – the butterfly wings – that surround one of the hottest white dwarf stars yet detected.  The central star of this nebula is estimated to be over 220,000 degrees Celsius.

NGC 6302 is a planetary nebula.   A planetary nebula is an emission nebula.  This means that as a star nears the end of it’s life, it can expand into a red giant.  As a red giant, it will begin blowing off it’s outer layers.  This ejected material forms a shell of gas and dust around the star.  The shell can glow when it becomes ionized by the ultraviolet radiation of the dying central star.

As I was looking at this image, I was drawn to the giant white pillars of dust that appear to be pointing back to the central star.  Take a close look.  It seems to me that they are clumps of dust that are resisting the pressure of stellar wind from the central white dwarf.  

I’m always struck by the variety of shapes and complexity that you can find in planetary nebulae.  The Butterfly Nebula is a great example and probably the most complex I’ve ever seen.

This nebula can be found in the constellation Scorpius. 

This extraordinary image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope using the Wide Field Camera 3 in both visible and ultraviolet light.

Image Credit:  NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

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