Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) are proudly displaying what is the most detailed image ever captured of the vast planetary nebula, Medusa. And what their powerful telescopes have revealed are the beautiful death throes of a dying star.
Discovered in 1955, the Medusa Nebula, known technically as Sharpless 2-274, is located in the constellation of Gemini and spans some four light-years across. It would take 1500 light-years to reach this massive nebula and it wasn't until the 1970s that researchers were able to visualize it with enough clarity to confirm its identity as a planetary nebula.
Today, however, astronomers have at their disposal ESO's Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced optical instrument which combines a number of scopes working in unison, allowing astronomers detailed images up to 25 times finer than can be achieved using a single telescope. Not only have they captured incredible images like Medusa, the VLT has even enabled scientists to track individual stars encircling the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.
Named after the dreadful creature from Greek mythology, the Medusa Nebula got its name from the serpentine filaments of glowing gas that emanate from the star, which conjure images of the snakes that sprung from the mythological creature's head. These colorful glowing gasses are made up of hydrogen and oxygen, thrown off intermittently as the star ejects its mass into space, which can last for tens of thousands of years.
Eventually the gas will disperse, marking the last phase in the transformation of the star before ending its life as a white dwarf.
But images of the Medusa Nebula are not simply pretty pictures, for these incredible photos speak of our future. The death of this star represents the fate of our own sun. I wonder who will be around to witness it...