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Hubble Spots a 'Stellar Lighthouse'

Nov 25, 2014 06:43 PM EST

Here's not something you see every day. The Hubble Heritage Project (HHP) and the European Space Agency (ESA) released an image of what looks like the rainbow-hued rays of a lighthouse in the middle of space. So what is it really?

According to the HHP, the photo is actually a series of superimposed images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the Egg Nebula during a rare and remarkably brief time in its otherwise very long life.

Each of the colorful hues of the "lighthouse" rays represent where different light was visible to Hubble while it took photos through various filters. These images were then compiled into one grand image showing all the light that is firing out of this nebula. And stunningly, it looks a lot like four beams from a massive lighthouse.

So what's going on here? The Egg Nebula is a "preplanetary nebula" - the expelled remnants of a dying star. Surprisingly, the planetary nebula that it will later form has nothing to do with planets at all.

"They gained their rather misleading title because when they were discovered in the 18th century they resembled planets in our Solar System when viewed through a telescope," the ESA recently explained.

According to the ESA, this image is actually 12 years old, but it takes time to process, analyze, and compose the telescope's stunning photography.

They go on to add that the Egg Nebula isn't always so visible, and we were lucky to catch when these four beams of light peeked through the dust of a dying star managed to reach Hubble in just the right way.

"By studying polarized light from the Egg Nebula, scientists can tell a lot about the physical properties of the material responsible for the scattering, as well as the precise location of the central (hidden) star," the Hubble Heritage team explained in a past release. "The fine dust is largely carbon, manufactured by nuclear fusion in the heart of the star and then ejected into space as the star sheds material. Such dust grains are essential ingredients for building dusty disks around future generations of young stars."

What's more, this beauty won't be around forever. This phase only lasts for a few thousand years of a star's life, which can last billions of years.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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