The European Southern Observatory’s 8.2-metre Very Large Telescope captured the most detailed view yet of NGC 2899, a colourful twin-lobed planetary nebular that resembles a vast butterfly surrounded by glowing clouds of high-temperature gas. Reaching temperatures of some 10,000 degrees, the gas is heated by torrents of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, with hot hydrogen creating a reddish halo surrounding the blue of oxygen gas. Located in the southern constellation Vela, the nebula features two central stars. One, near the end of its life, blew off its outer layers but the other star interferes with the outward flow of gas, creating the unusual two-lobed shape. Only 10 percent to 20 percent of planetary nebulae feature such bipolar shapes. This spectacular image was captured by one of the VLT telescopes using the FORS instrument.
Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer astronomers have constructed the most detailed image ever of a star — the red supergiant star Antares. They have also made the first map of the velocities of material in the atmosphere of a star other than the Sun, revealing unexpected turbulence in Antares’s huge extended atmosphere.
Astronomers have discovered three planets orbiting an ultra-cool dwarf star just 40 light-years from Earth. These worlds have sizes and temperatures similar to those of Venus and Earth and are the best targets found so far for the search for life outside the solar system. They are the first planets ever discovered around such a tiny and dim star.
Despite their name, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. They were described as such by early astronomers whose telescopes showed them as glowing disc-like objects, but we now know that they represent the final stage of activity of stars like our Sun. A way of estimating more accurate distances to planetary nebulae dispersed across our Galaxy has just been announced.