Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have captured a striking new image of the planetary nebula NGC 5189.
Planetary nebulae represent a final brief stage in the life of a star like the Sun. While consuming the last of the fuel in its core, the star expels a large portion of its outer regions, which then heats up and glows brightly, showing intricate structures that astronomers are still trying to fully understand.
NGC 5189, also known as the Spiral Planetary Nebula, is located in the constellation Musca about 3,000 light-years away.
The nebula shows a series of dense knots in the clouds of gas. The gas and radiation flowing out from the dying star carves out shapes in the clouds, forming glowing bow-wave-like patterns towards the center of the nebula.
The knots in NGC 5189 are a reminder of just how vast the planetary nebula is. They might look like mere details in this image, but each and every one is a similar size to the entire Solar System.
The star at the NGC 5189’s center is a dense white dwarf. It is far too small to see as anything other than a point of light, even though it is roughly the size of the Earth.
The overall shape of the nebula can tell us about what is happening on very small scales around the tiny central star. The object’s shape is reminiscent of a lawn sprinkler, with matter being expelled from the star, which is wobbling as it rotates.
Similar structures have been seen before, especially in planetary nebulae with binary stars at their centers. This is also a likely explanation for the structure of NGC 5189, though to date, only one star has been found at the nebula’s center.