The Hubble Space Telescope just captured these stunning new images of the Veil Nebula, one of the most intricate and beautiful in the observable universe.
The vibrant, wispy tendrils of plasma in the Veil Nebula are no more than a reminder of a giant sun that once existed in their place. Roughly 8,000 years ago, the massive star exploded in a supernova, spewing cosmic material out in all directions. According to a report from Discovery News, the Hubble Space Telescope has just captured new images of the nebula, revealing the beautiful aftermath of one of the universe’s most violent explosions.
The Veil Nebula is one of the clearest nebulas observed by astronomers to this day. The structures created by the supernova grow brilliantly in the constellation Cygnus, named after a swan, which is roughly 2,100 light-years away. Some of the plasma structures left over from the supernova are 110 light-years across.
The new photos snapped by the Hubble were stitched together into a mosaic image that spans just two light-years. It offers a detailed view of some of the shapes inside of the Veil Nebula. The brightest parts of the nebula were created by the shockwave that formed after the supernova, which extends all the way out to the end of the cavity surrounding a region of cooled stellar gas. The expanding bubble creates a vibrant display of colors as energy from the initial shockwave is transferred to the gases present.
The colors represent the different gases that are released when a star explodes. The red wisps are hydrogen gas, green represents sulfur, and the blue gas is oxygen. As these gases dance around each other and mix to form other compounds, a stunning spectrum of color appears in the Hubble’s images.
The Veil Nebula was first spotted by the Hubble in 1997, and astronomers are in the process of comparing images taken then and now to determine how much the nebula has changed over time. They hope to gain a better understanding of the short-term dynamics of the aftermath of an event that took place thousands of years ago.
The Veil Nebula is made up of several components. Also referred to as the Cirrus Nebula and the Filamentary Nebula, the visible structures are made up of three distinct regions. The Western Veil, also known as Caldwell 34, consists of NGC 6960, and is sometimes called “The Witch’s Broom,” “Finger of God,” or the “Filamentary Nebula.”
The Eastern Veil, also known as Caldwell 33, is brightest around the area NGC 6992. It trails south into NGC 6995 and IC 1340. The last section is called Pickering’s Triangle, or sometimes Pickering’s Triangular Wisp. It is brightest at the north edge of the loop in the center, but can be seen in photographs that were taken closer to the center of the loop as well.
The nebula was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1784. He first described the western edge of the nebula, as it “Extended; passes thro’ 52 Cygni… near 2 degree in length.” He also described the eastern end as “Branching nebulosity… The following part divides into several streams uniting again towards the south.”
As the tendrils extended into space, some of them look almost like ropes twisted around each other. The explanation for this phenomenon is that toward the outer edges of the nebula, the shockwaves were extremely thin. The shells were only visible when viewed at a specific angle, and they appeared in the form of filaments intertwined as they extend into space.
The nebula has some extremely bright regions, but it is spread out over such a great distance that you can hardly see it with the naked eye on Earth. An observer can view the nebula through a telescope equipped with an OIII filter, one that isolates the wavelength of light from double ionized oxygen. Most of the light emitted from the nebula travels at this wavelength, so it’s easier to see.
With this telescope, viewers can see the delicate filaments spanning across the outer edges of the nebula, and some astronomers believe that you can even see it by holding this filter directly up to your eye.
The brightest parts of the nebula have been labeled in the New General Catalogue as NGC 6960, 6974, 6979, 6992, and 6995. 6960 is the easiest section of the nebula to spot, running behind the star 52 Cygni, which can easily be viewed from Earth. NGC 6992 and 6995 are also easy to find, appearing on the eastern edge of the loop. NGC 6974 and 6979 appear as knots wrapped around each other in the northern section of the nebula.
It is much more difficult to see Pickering’s Triangle, which has no NGC designation. Williamina Fleming discovered the region in a photograph in 1904, but Edward Charles Pickering, the director of Fleming’s observatory, ultimately got credit for the discovery.