Earlier last week, a team of astronomers from NASA captured Stingray Nebula, which is 18,000 light-years from Earth and located near the southern constellation Ara.
The Nebula has dimmed remarkably fast, fading over just 20 years. The difference is visible in images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 and 2016.
According to a NASA press release, Martín A. Guerrero of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía en Granada, Spain said that the drastic contrast visible in the two images is “very, very dramatic, and very weird".
He further said that what we are witnessing is a nebula's evolution in real-time. In a span of years, we see variations in the nebula which has not been witnessed before with this much clarity.
The nebula is a massive cloud of gas and dust in space and mostly they are formed after a star dies. As a star's core cools down, it starts to shed its outer layers, which disperse to form the cloud. Nebulae are also the cradle in which baby stars form.
The Stingray Nebula is scientifically known as Hen 3-1357. It surrounds a dying star, a type known as a planetary nebula. The glow of nebulae comes from the absorption of the ultraviolet radiation from the star as it dies.
The Hubble Space Telescope also posted the two pictures on its Instagram handle. The caption of the image drew inspiration from the latest Twitter trend of “How it started to How it’s going.”
The researchers say that Stingray is the youngest known planetary nebula ever observed after the Hubble telescope captured images of it right as its star started shedding layers. In the early image, the nebula has a bright blue appearance and wavy turquoise edges, which also gave it the oceanic nickname.
The NASA press release says that from 1971 to 2002, the star's temperature surged from less than 40,000 degrees Fahrenheit to 108,000 degrees as helium atoms fused in a layer around its core. The nebula also appeared to grow during that time, since most of its gas was visible due to the increased heat and radiation.
But according to a 2016 study, the star started to cool down and by that year, Hubble photos revealed that the nebula had dimmed dramatically, and its visible portions had reduced in size to a more compact, oval-like shape because there was less heat.