This really quite beautiful looking object is the Egg nebula. Also known as AFGL 2688, it’s a pre-planetary nebula. A few weeks ago I was waxing lyrical about how stars die and seed their material back into the cosmos from whence it came. At the end of a star’s life, this is what happens to it.
In the Egg, you can still see the concentric circles from the thermal pulses which marked the star’s final throes. The star at the centre of this nebula is old enough that it’s cast off its outer layers now, as a thick cloud of material surrounding it (that dark diagonal patch in the centre). That cloud is actually a dense dusty disk which is blocking out all starlight. The two “searchlight beams” in the centre are where the starlight is escaping from this cocoon at the north and south poles of the star. Thanks to the physics of a rotating star, the stellar wind in stars like this is strongest at the poles – strong enough to puncture holes in the surrounding material and let starlight escape.
The fantastic thing is that in this image there’s enough detail that you can see it happening. It’s most obvious in the beam to the top right. You can see great chunks of cloud caught in the stellar wind, being blown outwards towards interstellar space. I don’t know for certain how big this nebula is, but I think it’s safe to say that our entire inner solar system would easily fit inside one of those beams of starlight. Just amazing.
(The title of this post, incidentally, is a reference to a song from the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack…)
Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA