Dying star's cosmic rebirth into a new nebula

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This dying star in the constellation of Cygnus will soon complete its transformation into what's known as a planetary nebula, which will play a vital role in returning enriched elements to the galaxy at large.

This star, designated, IRAS 20068+4051, has run out of hydrogen fuel and has begun venting huge quantities of dust and gas. It hasn't yet become a planetary nebula, which actually has nothing to do with planets beyond its superficial resemblance to a gas giant. Instead, it's still a protoplanetary nebula, and it's one of the very few such transitional nebulae that we've managed to observe.


The structure's shape was once spherical, but powerful stellar winds have twisted it into the spiral-like shape we see now. It's a striking enough image already, but things will get really dramatic when the gas heats up enough to make the cloud glow, which will signal the proper birth of the planetary nebula in spectacular fashion.

While planetary nebulae emit lots of different kinds of radiation, including visible light, protoplanetary nebula are much more difficult to see. They only emit infrared light, which makes them nearly undetectable from the surface of Earth. That's why it's a good thing the space-based Hubble Telescope was around to observe and photograph this rare phenomenon.