HomeOutdoorsNewsNASA’s Butterfly Nebula Photo Gives an Unsettling Look Into Our Sun’s Future

NASA’s Butterfly Nebula Photo Gives an Unsettling Look Into Our Sun’s Future

by Caitlin Berard
Butterfly Nebula From Stellar Demise
(Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Around 4,000 light-years from Earth, there lies a Butterfly Nebula known to scientists as NGC 6302. Looking at the nebula, it’s easy to see why it was given such a whimsical name. It truly does resemble a massive, multi-colored butterfly hovering in space. Looks can be deceiving, though, and despite the nebula’s breathtaking appearance in photos, it’s actually the portrait of a dying star.

If you’ve ever wondered what it will look like when our Sun inevitably runs out of fuel and dies, you need only look to NGC 6302. Thankfully, however, scientists don’t expect this world-ending event to occur for another 10 billion years or so.

The gorgeous “butterfly” wings of the nebula are actually the remains of the star’s outer layers of gas, now enveloping a collapsed white dwarf (for comparison, our Sun is a yellow dwarf).

When the once-brightly burning star ran out of fuel, it expelled its outer layers of gas deep into space, which now stretch more than 3 light-years. If that doesn’t sound like much, consider that 3 light-years is several thousand times wider than our solar system.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA scientists have kept an eye on this exploding star for decades. That said, despite scientists’ familiarity with the collapsing star, it continues to baffle them to this day.

While most nebulas expand in neat circular patterns, the Butterfly Nebula took on a distinct insectile shape. Thanks to recent time-lapse images, however, NASA may finally have the answers.

How Did the Butterfly Nebula Form?

When looking at images from the distant universe, it’s important to remember that what we see today actually occurred thousands of years ago. NGC 6302 isn’t collapsing as we speak; it died long, long ago. Long before humans had super-powered telescopes with which to view it.

By comparing two Hubble Space Telescope images of the Butterfly Nebula – one from 2009 and one from 2020 – NASA scientists estimate that the butterfly shape erupted from the central star from 2,300 and 900 years ago. When the star collapsed, half a dozen jets of wind blasted outward. Those jets have now been blowing in chaotic patterns for thousands of years.

According to researchers, these jets blasted matter toward the edges of the nebula at a staggering 500 miles per second. The matter closer to the center, however, has been moving at a fraction of that speed, resulting in the spectacular patterns within the wings we see today.

“The Butterfly Nebula is extreme for the mass, speed and complexity of its ejections from its central star, whose temperature is more than 200 times hotter than the sun yet is just slightly larger than the Earth,” Bruce Balick, a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, said in a statement. “I’ve been comparing Hubble images for years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

The nebula’s butterfly shape is a bit harder to explain. Researchers have theories, such as a central star colliding with a hidden companion star, but more research is needed to paint a complete picture.