ESO/E. Lagadec
This picture of the nebula around a rare yellow hypergiant star called IRAS 17163-3907 is the best ever taken of a star in this class and shows for the first time a huge dusty double shell surrounding the central hypergiant. The star and its shells resemble an egg white around a yolky centre, leading astronomers to nickname the object the Fried Egg Nebula. The image was released Sept. 28, 2011.
updated 9/28/2011 1:12:01 PM ET 2011-09-28T17:12:01

First came the "Running Chicken" nebula, and now comes a cosmic "Fried Egg." A European telescope has captured the best image yet of one of the rarest classes of stars in our universe, and astronomers playfully point out that the cosmic scene resembles an egg white around a yolky center.

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, spotted the monster star, which is called a yellow hypergiant. The star is located about 13,000 light-years away from Earth, but is the closest yellow hypergiant found to date.

The new image, which ESO scientists dubbed the "Fried Egg Nebula" shows the central hypergiant star, officially known as IRAS 17163-3907, surrounded by a huge dusty double shell, making up the egg yolk and white. [See the photo and video of the "Fried Egg" nebula]

The massive star is so large it has a width that is about 1,000 times larger than our sun. In fact, if the Fried Egg nebula were placed at the center of our solar system, the Earth would be positioned deep within the star itself. The orbit of the planet Jupiter would be just above the star's surface.

But that's not all. The much larger neighboring nebula would engulf all the planets, dwarf planets, and even some comets that orbit way out beyond the orbit of Neptune. [Top 10 Star Mysteries]

The new observations from the Very Large Telescope show that the Fried Egg Nebula also shines approximately 500,000 times brighter than the sun. 

"This object was known to glow brightly in the infrared but, surprisingly, nobody had identified it as a yellow hypergiant before," Eric Lagadec, of the European Southern Observatory, said in a statement. Lagadec led the team that produced the new images.

The new observations of IRAS 17163-3907 were made using the Very Large Telescope's VISIR infrared camera. The image's release comes a week after ESO officials unveiled a photo of the so-called "Running Chicken" nebula, which got its nickname from the birdlike shape that some people detect in its brightest region. [Gallery: Strange Nebula Shapes, What Do You See?

The images are the first of the Fried Egg Nebula to clearly show the material around it and reveal two nearly perfectly spherical shells.

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Yellow hypergiants are stars in an extremely active phase of their evolution. These rare stars experience a series of dynamic and explosive events that cause the star to eject four times the mass of the sun in only a few hundred years.

The spewed material from these explosions, which consists of dust and gas, make up the extensive double shell around the nebula.

The extreme activity of yellow hypergiants shows that the star will likely die an explosive death, potentially as one of the next supernova explosions to occur in our galaxy. Supernovas blast much-needed chemicals into the surrounding interstellar environment, and the resulting shock waves often spur the creation of newborn stars.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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