ESA/Hubble & NASA

This is the Westbrook Nebula (also known as PK 166-66, CRL 618, or AFGL 618) and it is potentially one of the strangest astronomical objects I’ve ever seen. The nebula is known as a protoplanetary nebula – which doesn’t actually have anything to do with planets. Rather, this is an unfortunate trick of etymology. A protoplanetary nebula is defined as the very short period of time during a sun-sized star’s death when the star emits largly in infrared radiation, and is a kind of reflection nebula. And the time spent in this phase is brief. It is so short, in fact, only a few hundred protoplanetary nebula are known.

In addition to their short lifespan, protoplanetary nebulae are very dim, so studying them can be tricky. This image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. These different exposures, five in total, reveal information about what’s happening in this region of space, ultimately providing information about the nebula’s composition.

The four fingers (you know, the objects that resemble a bullet shot through gel or water) are traveling at velocities of up to 200 kilometers per second. The nebula itself began to form about 200 years ago, so it only has a few more centuries in the protoplanetary phase before it evolves into a planetary nebula. After a few thousand years, the Westbrook Nebula will eventually cool and disappear from view, having lived it’s brief time in the light of its dying star.

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