The Bean Nebula (view at full resolution)

Today’s dose of spectacular space imagery comes courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope: a colorful close-up view of one of the many bright bubbles of glowing gas that make up the Large Magellanic Cloud.

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First cataloged in 1956 by American astronomer Karl Henize, LHA 120-N — whose distinctive shape earned it the nickname the Bean Nebula — looks for all the world like a giant ball of cotton candy, thanks to billowing clouds of pink gas.

The Bean Nebula is the second-largest stellar nursery within the Large Magellanic Cloud, and its offspring include some of the most massive stars known to astronomers.

But it’s not just another pretty face: the distinctive appearance of the Bean Nebula reveals some important clues about the life cycle of stars, as well as its own history.

It’s a great-grandparent of sorts, having birthed three generations of stars. Each generation produced a “shell” of gas and dust, and with each successive generation those shells moved further away from the nebula’s center. Per the NASA/ESA press release, “These shells were blown away from the newborn stars in the turmoil of their energetic birth and early life, creating the ring shapes so prominent in this image.”

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I am blown away by yet again by the amazing glimpses of our universe that Hubble has been steadily providing since it first launched in April 1990. It’s an expensive instrument, but we’ve reaped huge scientific and aesthetic rewards from the investment, not to mention great good will; the public loves Hubble. Twenty years later, it’s still going strong, having had one last servicing mission in 2009 that should keep Hubble in good working order through 2014. That’s when the James Webb Space Telescope is due to launch. Here’s hoping that instrument gives back as much as Hubble.