Nebula with spiral arms

This planetary nebula is called PK 329-02.2 and is located in the constellation of Norma in the southern sky. It is also sometimes referred to as Menzel 2, or Mz 2, named after the astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered the nebula in 1922. When stars that are around the mass of the Sun reach their final stages of life, they shed their outer layers into space, which appear as glowing clouds of gas called planetary nebulae. The ejection of mass in stellar burnout is irregular and not symmetrical, so that planetary nebulae can have very complex shapes. In the case of Menzel 2 the nebula forms a winding blue cloud that perfectly aligns with two stars at its centre. In 1999 astronomers discovered that the star at the upper right is in fact the central star of the nebula, and the star to the lower left is probably a true physical companion of the central star. For tens of thousands of years the stellar core will be cocooned in spectacular clouds of gas and then, over a period of a few thousand years, the gas will fade away into the depths of the Universe. The curving structure of Menzel 2 resembles a last goodbye before the star reaches its final stage of retirement as a white dwarf. A version of this image was entered into the Hubble's Hidden Treasures image processing competition by contestant Serge Meunier.

Hubble pictures planetary nebula with spiral arms.Credit:ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgement: Serge Meunier
The two spiral arms winding towards the bright centre might deceive you into thinking you are looking at a galaxy a bit like our Milky Way. But the object starring in this image is of a different nature: PK 329-02.2 is a ‘planetary nebula’ within our home galaxy.

Despite the name, this isn’t a planet either. Planetary nebula is a misnomer that came about because of how much nebulas resembled giant, gaseous planets when looked through a telescope in the 1700s. Rather, what we see in this image is the last breath of a dying star.

When stars like the Sun are nearing the end of their lives, they let go of their gaseous outermost layers. As these clouds of stellar material move away from the central star they can acquire irregular and complex shapes. This complexity is evident in the faint scattered gas you see at the centre of the image. But there is also beautiful symmetry in PK 329-02.2, as the two bright blue spiral arms perfectly align with the two stars at the centre of the nebula.

It may look like the spiral arms are connected, but it is the stars that are companions. They are part of a visual binary, though only the one at the upper right gave rise to the nebula. While the stars will continue to orbit each other for millions or billions of years, the nebula – and its spiral arms – will spread out from the centre and eventually fade away over the next few thousands of years.

This planetary nebula with spiral arms is also known as Menzel 2, after the US astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered it in the 1920s. It is located in Norma, a constellation in the Southern celestial hemisphere where you can also find Menzel 1 and 3, two ‘bipolar planetary nebulas’ (shaped like butterflies or hourglasses).

Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 captured this image, which was processed using green, blue, red and infrared filters. Astrophotography-enthusiast Serge Meunier entered a version of this image into the 2012 Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition.

Source: European Space Agency

Posted in Apod on October 10, 2016