This rare display has been nicknamed the Toby Jug Nebula (Picture: International Gemini Observatory)
The death of a giant red star is putting on an awesome cosmic display, creating a billowing pair of almost symmetrical ‘wings’ of dust and gas illuminated at its heart.
Others have likened the stunning formation to an old style of English pottery, earning it the nickname of the Toby Jug Nebula.
The rare bipolar reflection, around 1,200 light-years away in the direction of the Carina constellation, was captured by Gemini South in Chile. The telescope is one half of the International Gemini Observatory, operated by NSF’s NOIRLab. Gemini North is located in Hawai’i.
Astronomers observing the glowing nebula, officially known as IC 2220, believe it could have been formed by interactions between the ancient red giant and a companion star, which was shredded as the dying star expanded.
Red giants form when a star runs out of hydrogen at its core, which keeps it burning. With no outward force from nuclear fusion, the star collapses in on itself – but the pressure from such massive contraction causes the core temperature to soar, and the star then swells up to 400 times its original size.
The star at the centre of IC 2220, HR3126, is younger than our own Sun, but five times more massive – meaning it burned through its hydrogen supply much faster. The Sun is 4.6 billion years old, and is not expected to run out of fuel for another five billion years.
Our Sun is not expected to die for five billion years (Picture: Getty)
However, the end-of-life phase of red giant stars is relatively brief, and the celestial structures that form around them are rare, making the Toby Jug Nebula an excellent case study into stellar evolution.
As HR 3126 swelled, its atmosphere expanded and it began to shed its outer layers. The expelled stellar material flowed out into the surrounding area, forming a magnificent structure of gas and dust that reflects the light from the central star.
Previous theories have suggested bipolar structures similar to those seen in the Toby Jug Nebula are the result of interactions between the central red giant and a binary companion star, but previous observations found no such companion to HR3126.
Instead, astronomers observed an extremely compact disk of material around the central star. This finding suggests that a former binary companion was possibly shredded into the disk, which may have triggered the formation of the surrounding nebula.