Hubble Images Searchlight Beams from a Preplanetary Nebula

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been at the cutting edge of research into what happens to stars like our sun at the ends of their lives. One stage that stars pass through as they run out of nuclear fuel is called the preplanetary or protoplanetary nebula stage. A new Hubble image of the Egg Nebula shows one of the best views to date of this brief but dramatic phase in a star's life.

The preplanetary nebula phase is a short period in the cycle of stellar evolution, and has nothing to do with planets. Over a few thousand years, the hot remains of the aging star in the center of the nebula heat it up, excite the gas, and make it glow as a subsequent planetary nebula. The short lifespan of preplanetary nebulae means there are relatively few of them in existence at any one time. Moreover, they are very dim, requiring powerful telescopes to be seen. This combination of rarity and faintness means they were only discovered comparatively recently. The Egg Nebula, the first to be discovered, was first spotted less than 40 years ago, and many aspects of this class of object remain shrouded in mystery.

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