July 13, 2010 at 4:54 PM ETTwo newly released pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope document the beautiful birth of stars — and a star's equally beautiful death. Let's start with the death: In the last stages of a sunlike star's 10 billion-year life, its hydrogen fuel runs out, and the stellar core begins to shrink and heat up. The star's outer layers are blown off and set aglow by the star's radiation, creating colorful shells of gas. When 18th-century astronomers looked at such stars through small telescopes, the extended shells looked like fuzzy planetary disks. That led observers to call the objects "planetary nebulae." Even after astronomers understood what was really going on, the name stuck. Planetary nebulae that look like butterflies, cat's eyes, rings or glowing orbs rank among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring images in Hubble's collection. Three years ago, the Hubble team added a set of four to the collection, and this week the European Space Agency's Hubble team highlights yet another example of the genre. The nebula's formal name is IRAS 19475+3119. It was imaged by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys back in 2003, and is actually classified as a "preplanetary nebula" because it's in the early stages of its blow-off. The newly released image has been compared to a "beautiful bird," and for that reason I'd propose that IRAS 19475+3119 be designated the Dying Swan Nebula. It also helps that the dying star lies in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), 15,000 light-years from Earth in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. For more about planetary nebulae, check out this recent report as well as our slideshow of top Hubble targets and this video from the Space Telescope Science Institute.
O. De Marco / Macquarie U. / NASA / ESA A colorful star-forming region is featured in this stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 2467.