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The Butterfly Nebula
The Butterfly Nebula

This celestial object looks like a delicate butterfly. But it is far from serene. What resemble dainty butterfly wings are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The gas is tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour—fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes!

A dying star that was once about five times the mass of the Sun is at the center of this fury. It has ejected its envelope of gases and is now unleashing a stream of ultraviolet radiation that is making the cast-off material glow. This object is an example of a planetary nebula, so-named because many of them have a round appearance resembling that of a planet when viewed through a small telescope.

The "butterfly" stretches for more than two light-years, which is about half the distance from the Sun to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

The central star itself cannot be seen, because it is hidden within a doughnut-shaped ring of dust, which appears as a dark band pinching the nebula in the center. The thick dust belt constricts the star's outflow, creating the classic hourglass shape displayed by some planetary nebulae.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team