NASA says 'Merry Christmas' with festive photo from Hubble

The swirling gas of nearby planetary nebula NGC 5189 looks like a Christmas-tree ornament with a glowing ribbon inside.

Every year, NASA scientists use the Hubble space telescope to find a 'Christmassy' image in the night sky.

This year, astronomers photographed a festive-looking nearby planetary nebula called NGC 5189.

The intricate structure of this bright gaseous nebula looks like a Christmas-tree ornament with a glowing ribbon inside - although the image is a vision of how our Sun will die.

Planetary nebulae are huge clouds of gas in space - the final  stage in the life of a medium-sized star like our Sun.

As the last of the 'fuel' in an ageing star burns out, the star blasts out a large portion of the 'envelope' surrounding it as it dies.

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This material is heated by the radiation from the dying star and radiates, producing glowing clouds of gas that swirl around the former star's core.

A spectacular example of this beautiful complexity is seen in the bluish lobes of NGC 5189. The planetary nebula has been created with two swirling, 'nest-like' structures that blossom out of the centre.

This structure could be explained by the presence of another star orbiting the central star and influencing the pattern of mass ejection during its nebula-producing death throes.

Many star systems have two stars - although there is no sign of the second star here, if it ever existed.

The central star now lives as a white dwarf - a burnt-out, tiny 'skeleton' of a star.

The bright golden ring that twists and tilts through the image is made up of 'radial filaments' and 'cometary knots' formed from radiation and the 'stellar wind' from the dying star.

This image was taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on October 8, 2012, in filters tuned to the specific colors of fluorescing sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

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