Hubble has snapped another gorgeous photograph for its ever-expanding collection of phenomenal astronomical images. In it, the spectacularly symmetrical “wings” of Hen 2-437, a planetary nebula within the Milky Way, can be seen.
This dusty, cosmic shell – the remnants of a smaller mass star ripping itself apart at the end of its life – is located in the constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox). First identified in 1946, it was added to the list of planetary nebulae two decades later by NASA.
Upon the death of a low-mass star, it swells up to become a red giant. At this point, stellar winds normally radiate out in all directions, casting off the star’s outer shell in a roughly spherical manner, leaving behind a white dwarf. Hen 2-437 appears to be emitting its shell from only two points, making it a so-called bipolar nebula.
Although astronomers have long been uncertain as to why this happens, last year the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile observed a red giant transforming into a white dwarf. A planetary nebula was created in the process that also appeared to be bipolar.
The researchers spotted a secondary light source nearby, and concluded that it was actually two stars interacting with each other that caused the stellar winds to be directed in this bipolar manner. With this in mind, it could be that the icy blue wings of Hen 2-437 may have been generated by a binary star system.