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Image: Cat's Eye and NGC 7662
J. Kastner et al. / RIT / NASA / CXC / STScI
The Cat's Eye Nebula and another planetary nebula in the solar neighborhood, NGC 7662, shine in enhanced-color images based on data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. X-ray emissions detected by Chandra are shown in purple, and optical emissions detected by Hubble are shown in red, green and blue. These images are part of a systematic survey led by Joel Kastner and Rodolfo Montez Jr. of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
updated 10/10/2012 5:38:31 PM ET 2012-10-10T21:38:31

Amazing glowing nebulae resembling cosmic candy take center stage in a group of new photos unveiled Wednesday by the science team behind NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Image: NGC 7009
J. Kastner et al. / RIT / NASA / CXC / STScI
NGC 7009, also known as the Saturn Nebula, is one of the planetary nebulae surveyed using the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Image: NGC 6826
RIT/NASA/CXC/STScI
The planetary nebula NGC 6826 is sometimes known as the "blinking nebula" because the shell of glowing gas can seem to blink in and out of view, depending on whether the telescope observer is looking at the central star directly or with peripheral vision.

The pictures are part of a survey the Chandra space telescope is making of nearby planetary nebulae, which are formed when dying stars push off their outer gaseous layers. The first stage of this survey, which includes Chandra observations of 21 of these nebulae, has now been released. Chandra also released a video of the surveyed nebulae.

Chandra observes the universe in short-wavelength X-ray light. This data, shown in pink, was combined with optical imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, shown in red, green and blue. The four nebulae pictured above are the Cat's Eye nebula (NGC 6543), as well as NGC 7662, NGC 7009 and NGC 6826.

"Planetary nebulae have provided astrophysicists with dying star 'laboratories' for more than a century," Rochester Institute of Technology astronomer Joel Kastner, who led the study, said in a statement. "They provide test beds for theories of stellar evolution and give us insight into the origin of heavy elements in the universe and on Earth. Yet we still don’t fully understand why they take on such a dazzling variety of shapes."

All the nebulae being studied in the survey lie relatively close, astronomically speaking, within 5,000 light-years of Earth. [Gallery: Amazing Chandra Nebula Photos]

"Because they all just happen to lie relatively nearby, we think this group of objects is fairly representative of planetary nebulae in general," Kastner said.

The sun itself is expected to produce a planetary nebula in several billion years. This will happen when the sun runs out of hydrogen to burn up in its core, and expands into a red giant star, engulfing the Earth and inner planets of the solar system in its new radius that will be tens to hundreds of times wider.

Then the sun, like all stars at this stage, will puff out its external layers while its hot core collapses down into a dense white dwarf star. This hot core will emit a fast wind that speeds outward, pushing out the ejected gas layers to create the glowing shells typical of planetary nebulae.

The diffuse X-ray light observed by Chandra in the four nebulas above is thought to be caused by shock waves created when the stellar wind hits the gaseous layers.

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About half of the new Chandra photos also reveal bright points of X-ray light in the centers of the nebulae that could indicate the presence of a companion star in addition to the white dwarfs there. This suggests that stars with planetary nebulae have a high likelihood of being part of binary star systems.

"Future studies should help clarify the role of double stars in determining the structure and evolution of planetary nebulas," Chandra scientists wrote in a statement. For instance, companion stars may help explain why many planetary nebulae aren't spherical.

The $1.65 billion Chandra observatory was launched on the space shuttle Columbia in July 1999.

The new Chandra findings were reported in a study published in August's issue of The Astronomical Journal.  

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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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