Science Space Extreme 'Space Butterfly' Captured by ESO Telescope The planetary nebula has never before been imaged in such striking detail. By Melissa Breyer Editorial Director Hunter College F.I.T., State University of New York Cornell University Melissa Breyer is Treehugger’s editorial director. She is a sustainability expert and author whose work has been published by the New York Times and National Geographic, among others. our editorial process Melissa Breyer Updated July 30, 2020 Highly detailed image of the NGC 2899 planetary nebula. ESO Share Twitter Pinterest Email Science Space Natural Science Technology Agriculture Energy One of the great wonders of being a human on Earth is gazing upward to the sky and pondering the heavens beyond. And one of the great wonders of being a human in the 21st century is being able to do so with the help of the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT). Located in Paranal, Chile, the VLT has delivered a number of breathtaking images – the latest being a symmetrical bubble of gas known as NGC 2899, which looks like a giant psychedelic butterfly flitting across the universe. This planetary nebula has never before been imaged in such detail, ESO notes, "with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars." Highly detailed image of the NGC 2899 planetary nebula. ESO Despite having "planetary" in the name, planetary nebulae are not exactly planetary; they got their name from early astronomers who described them as planet-like in appearance. In fact, they are what happens when giant, ancient stars give up the ghost, collapse, and emit expanding shells of gas, filled with heavy elements. Like a dramatic stage death, space-style, the shells shine brilliantly for thousands of years before slowly fading away. Currently, the waves of gas extend up to two light-years from the object's center, with temperatures reaching upwards of ten thousand degrees. That heat comes from the high degree of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas, in blue. ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope The map above includes stars visible to the unaided eye under good conditions; the location of the nebula is at the red circle. The butterfly beauty is located in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), between 3000 and 6500 light-years away. Its two central stars are presumed to be the source of it its (almost) symmetric appearance. "After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers," explains ESO, "the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here." ESO adds that only 10 to 20% of planetary nebulae display this type of shape. While it may take a very large telescope to see phenomena such as NGC 2899, it's a gift nonetheless. The image, and others like it, have come to fruition under the ESO Cosmic Gems program, an outreach initiative to use ESO telescopes for purposes of education and public outreach. Making use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations, spectacles like butterflies made of fiery gas are captured for all to see – giving us one more reason to marvel at the night skies above.