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Hubble images of dying stars could shed light on living Earth

Mosaic of four nebula observed by Hubble within the Large Magellanic Cloud  

In this story:

Carbon sign of cosmic age

A galactic zoo


March 9, 2000
Web posted at: 2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT)

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- Training its eye on decaying stars in a nearby galaxy, the Hubble Space Telescope could uncover clues about the formation of our solar system and life on Earth.

Newly released Hubble images of glowing gas around 27 stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), released Thursday, represent the most detailed study of planetary nebula outside of the Milky Way.

The stellar relics are many times farther away than similar planetary nebula in this galaxy. But because all of those in the LMC are the same distance from Earth, about 168,000 light-years, scientists can determine their brightness with great accuracy.


"They are known distances, which means that if I can observe an apparent brightness, I know the absolute brightness," said Dr. Letizia Stanghellini, a Hubble astronomer.

Scientists consider study of the LMC important because it could help explain the genesis of our galaxy.

"The Large Magellanic Cloud is a galaxy that is different than the Milky Way," Stanghellini said. "It mimics an environment that is closer to the early universe and is of great cosmological interest."

Carbon sign of cosmic age

Only lighter elements like hydrogen filled the early universe. As stars died they produced heavier elements. And stars that create planetary nebulae unleash great quantities of carbon, the elemental building block of known life.

The presence of carbon on Earth and in the solar system means that our sun is a younger star, formed 4.6 billion years ago in part from heavy elements like carbon cast off from an older generation of stars.

Understanding how the molecular building blocks of life formed could help solve the mystery of how life evolved in our solar system, according to Hubble astronomers.

Resembling early conditions of the universe, the LMC promises to offer scientists an intriguing laboratory for years to come. Just why does the nearby galaxy appear so youthful?

"This is a question that everyone's trying to solve," Stanghellini said.

A galactic zoo

The Hubble images, taken between June and September 1999, show a rich variety of planetary nebula. SMP 16, 30 and 93 are bipolar nebula, dual lobes of gas emitted from a decaying star. The pinwheel-shaped SMP 10 is classified as a "point-symmetric" nebula. SMP 4 has an elliptical shape. And SMP 27, a quadrupolar nebula, consists of four lobes of gas.

Lines point to the locations of the nebulas in a picture of the LMC taken by an observatory on Earth. Blue indicates hotter temperatures; red, cooler ones.

Heavier elements like neon, created only when giant stars explode into supernovas, are abundant in bipolar nebulae, indicating their relative youth.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, manages the Hubble observatory, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency.

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