Leave it to the cosmos to make every stage of the life cycle more beautiful than the last.
The photo above is of ESO 378-1, also known as the Southern Owl Nebula. Once a star, this planetary nebula was captured by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in northern Chile. It’s 3,500 light-years away in the constellation Hydra, and has a diameter of almost four-light years.
The gorgeous phenomenon is a result of the gases ejected when a star expands during the beginning stages of its twilight years. As they bubble outward, the gases dissipate, and the hot core begins to emit UV radiation which then ionizes the surrounding gas—resulting in those glowing hues. As elements are carried off into the stellar wind, they feed back into the universe.
The core that's left after the nebula fades will continue to burn for a billion years and then transform into a white dwarf, which will take another couple billion years to cool down.
The current state of the Southern Owl Nebula is a preview of what’s to come for our own sun. More massive stars live out their final days as a supernovae. Researchers believe there are around 10,000 planetary nebulas currently in the Milky Way, though we’ve only spotted about 1,500.
This chart shows the interstellar location of ESO 378-1:
The planetary nebula phase is a short one in the life of a star, lasting only tens of thousands of years. So while it will remain long after we’re gone, that seems as good an excuse as any to take a minute to appreciate its majesty.