Described as a “cosmic butterfly,” the Twin Jet Nebula is stunning. Few cosmic phenomena have such striking complexity and colors. The image, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals two shimmering lobes of material flowing away from a glowing binary star system.
Inside the pair of lobes are two massive jets of gas streaming away from the star system. This gas is moving at a blistering one million kilometers per hour.
The official name of the Twin Jet Nebula is PN M2-9. The PN means the nebula is designated a planetary nebula. The M is in reference to the person who discovered it – Rudolf Minkowski.
You’re looking at the final stages of life for an old star
The Twin Jet Nebula consists of two stars. The smaller star, ranging from 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses, is a small white dwarf – the final stage for a star this size. The larger star, ranging from 1.0 to 1.4 solar masses (Our sun is 1.0 solar masses), isn’t too far behind and is responsible for the light show the Hubble captured.
We are looking at the larger star’s outer layers being illuminated by its exposed core.
We are seeing two jets of material streaming in opposite directions due to the gravitational interactions between the pair of stars. It takes around 100 years for the stars to circle each other. Besides giving us one of the most spectacular cosmic images we’ll ever see, the gravitational effects also allows the white dwarf to pull gas from its larger companion star.
This produces a large disc of material around both stars that extends way out from the pair of stars. Take the orbit of Pluto. Pretty big right? Now multiply it by 15. That might seem incredibly large, but it’s way too small to be seen in this image.
How the Hubble Saw The Twin Jet Nebula in 1997
18 years ago, Hubble captured an image of the Twin Jet Nebula using its Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.
The big improvements in this week’s image are thanks to the telescope’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrography (STIS).
Image credits: NASA