Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope in Chile have captured the most detailed image ever taken of the Medusa Nebula (also known Abell 21 and Sharpless 2-274) which spans approximately four light-years at a distance of about 1500 light-years from Earth.
The nebula is named after the Gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology – a hideous creature with snakes as hair that would turn mortals into stone if they laid eyes upon her. These snakes are represented by the serpentine filaments of glowing gas in the nebula.
The Medusa Nebula was created by a dying star. As the star at the center of the nebula made its transition into retirement, it shed its outer layers into space. For tens of thousands of years, the stellar cores of planetary nebulae are surrounded by these spectacularly colorful gaseous clouds. Over a few more thousand years, the gas slowly disperses into its surroundings. The ejection of mass from stars at this stage of their evolution is often intermittent, which can result in fascinating structures within planetary nebulae such as Medusa’s snakes. This is the last phase in the transformation of stars like our Sun before ending their active lives as white dwarfs.
Image Credit: ESA