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17 Nebula Shapes You Didn't Know Existed

Eagles, butterflies, and rotten eggs, oh my!

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1. Orion Nebula

NASA / Via

Ever wonder where stars are born? (And we don't mean reality television.) A mere 1,500 light-years from us, the Orion Nebula — pictured using infrared, ultraviolet, and visible-light colors — is the nearest star factory. It has a heart of four monstrously massive stars, collectively called the Trapezium because of the shape they make.


3. Wizard Nebula

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA / Via

This star cluster is in the constellation Cepheus and is about 7,000 light-years from Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy. The technical name of the cluster is NGC 7380, but let's just pretend it's really sorcery.

NASA / Via

Here's a close-up of the center, courtesy of the Hubble. Chinese astronomers spotted it in 1054 A.D., when its life ended and it exploded as a supernova. Now it houses a pulsar, a type of neutron star, that spins on its axis 30 times a second.

5. The Cat's Eye Nebula

NASA / Via

It's watching you, waiting to knock something over when you're not looking. This nebula is estimated to be 1,000 years old and is a visual "fossil record" of the evolution of a dying star.


6. Rosette Nebula

X-ray (NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Wang et al), Optical (DSS & NOAO/AURA/NSF/KPNO 0.9-m Rector et al) / Via

This star-formation regions, shown here in a composite image, is 5,000 light-years from Earth. All the stars in the middle are younger with the fainter clusters on either side.

7. Tarantula Nebula

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA / Via

About 160,000 light-years from Earth, the Tarantula nebula was determined to be a violent explosion of a massive star. A star-forming region, it's a dainty 1,900 light-years across.

NASA / Via

Here's another view. The Hubble revealed a pair of one-half light-year long interstellar "twisters," which scientists suspect are a difference in temperature between the hot surface and cold interior of the clouds combined with the pressure of starlight. Godspeed with that tornado, Helen Hunt.



NASA / Via

"Trifid" means divided into three clefts or points. This nebula lives in the constellation Sagittarius and shows a nearby massive star tearing apart an ill-fated stellar nursery about 9,000 light-years from Earth. Think of the children!

10. Black Widow Nebula

NASA / Via

Astronomers suspect that a large cloud of gas and dust condensed to create multiple clusters of massive star formation. The winds from these groups of large stars probably blew out into the direction of least resistance, forming a double bubble. The baby stars are the yellow specks where the two bubbles overlap.

11. Butterfly Nebula

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team / Via

Far from delicate, the wings are actually cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit that are racing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour — fast enough to travel from Earth to the moon in 24 minutes!

A dying star that was about five times the mass of our Sun is at the very center (hidden from direct view because of gas) and is estimated to be about 400,000 degrees Fahrenheit — one of the hottest stars in our galaxy. This nebula is about 3,800 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius, and the butterfly spreads over two light-years.


12. Boomerang Nebula

NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team / Via

Astronomers called it the Boomerang Nebula in 1980 after observing it with a large ground-based telescope, but after seeing high-resolution Hubble images, "Bow Tie Nebula" might have been better. Fierce 500,000 kilometer-per-hour winds blowing cold gas away from the central dying star seem to have created the shape.

13. Rotten Egg Nebula

NASA / Via

It's a good thing this guy, more eloquently known as the Calabash Nebula, is 5,000 light years from Earth because its sulfur content would smell like rotten eggs (if one could smell in space, of course).

15. Cone Nebula

NASA, H. Ford (JHU), G. Illingworth (USCS/LO), M. Clampin (STScI), G. Hartig (STScI), the ACS Science Team, and ESA / Via

This monster is actually a pillar of gas and dust and it lives in a turbulent star-forming region. The entire nebula is seven light-years long, but this image only shows two and a half.


16. Carina Nebula

NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and the Hubble Heritage Team / Via

About 7,500 light-years from us is the Carina Nebula, a mountain of cold hydrogen gas laced with dust — and another hotbed of newborn stars.