Image Credit: Romano Corradi, Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain; Mario Livio, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.; Ulisse Munari, Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova-Asiago, Italy; Hugo Schwarz, Nordic Optical Telescope, Canarias, Spain; and NASA

Meet the Southern Crab Nebula (otherwise known as He2-104); a strikingly strange region found about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the Centaurus constellation. As NASA once described it (all the way back in 1999, when this image was released), the oddly-shaped structure resembles "an hourglass nestled within an hourglass," only it's a rather large one. The primary nebula spans several light-years across and is powered by not one, but two central stars, with vastly different characteristics.

The stars themselves — a red giant, which currently hangs on the precipice between life and death, and a white dwarf, the remnant of a star that has already transitioned into the cosmic afterlife — comprise something known as a symbiotic system.

This red giant isn't your garden variety dying Sun though. It's technically classified as a Mira variable star, which essentially tells us that this star pulsates at regular intervals and has a reddish hue. Also noteworthy is the fact that the stars are just loosely tied together. The distance between them is so vast, it takes close to 100 years for them to complete a full rotation around the other.

However, they still hold immense power over the gaseous tomb they are currently encased in. NASA notes:

This image of the Southern Crab highlights the prominent glow of the region's nitrogen gas content. It, in turn, has been energized by the ultraviolet radiation streaming from the white dwarf's surface.


See a larger image here.


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