Staring into the Maw of a Mysterious Cosmic Globule

Hiding deep inside the Gum Nebula, some 1,300 light-years from Earth, are a collection of mysterious objects that look like comets -- but they're certainly NOT comets.

Hiding deep inside the Gum Nebula, some 1,300 light-years from Earth, are a collection of strange objects that look like comets. But they certainly aren't comets - they're small nebulous globules of gas and dust and their exact nature remains a bit of a mystery.

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In this stunning new observation by the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) a ‘cometary globule,' called CG4, shows off its intricate detail and its dusty ‘mouth' can be seen. Usually appearing dark, the faint reflected light off CG4 is only visible due to the VLT's extremely sensitive optics.

Compared with the surrounding nebula, CG4 is very small, but in reality, its dimensions would dwarf the solar system. The head of the globule is 1.5 light-years across and its faint tail stretches 8 light-years long. CG4, and other cometary globules nearby, generally point away from the Vela supernova remnant in the center of the Gum Nebula (which is nearly 1,000 light-years wide).

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Although the nature and origin of cometary globules is not entirely clear, it appears that CG4 owes its dramatic shape to nearby young massive stars whose radiation is eroding away the thick dusty material, sweeping it back. Inside this globule, young stars are forming and astronomers estimate that several suns-worth of matter is contained within.

For more detail about CG4 and high-resolution images, browse the ESO press release.

In a discovery announced on Sept. 4, 2013, a population of planetary nebulae near the galactic core appear to be, weirdly, preferentially aligned to the Milky Way's galactic plain. The nebulae, known as "bipolar" (or "butterfly") planetary nebulae are completely non-interacting and of various ages, suggesting some external force is shaping their orientation. It's thought that a powerful magnetic field may be the culprit.

The researchers used observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and ESO's New Technology Telescope, so here are a small selection of some stunning examples of bipolar planetary nebulae as seen through the eye of Hubble. Shown here is the stunning NGC 6302 -- an intricate example of a bipolar planetary nebula's butterfly wings.

Hubble 5: A classically-shaped bipolar (or 'butterfly') planetary nebula.

NGC 6881: A binary star possibly shapes this wonderfully symmetrical nebula.

NGC 5189: A dramatic view of the ribbons of bright material being ejected from a planetary nebula.

PN Hb 12: An 'hourglass'-shaped bipolar planetary nebula.

Hen 3-1475: A planetary nebula in the making.

M2-9: What appears to be twin jet engines is in fact a stunning example of a bipolar planetary nebula.