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See the music of the stars in this quaver-shaped nebula

A dazzling new photo zooms into the ghost of a supernova, a nebula informally known as the "Eighth Note Nebula."


Much like an impressionist painting, nebulas on closer acquaintance don't always have the same appearance they do from a distance. The cloud of gas, dust and stars known as LHA 120-N55, seen here in a new image taken by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, is also sometimes known as the Eighth Note Nebula due to its resemblance to a quaver (it's more obvious from a distance).

It's located some 163,000 light-years away, in a galaxy orbiting the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud, an irregular galaxy teeming with regions of star birth and death.

LHA 120-N55 is located in a superbubble called LMC 4. A superbubble is a cavity usually hundreds of light-years across, blown clear of gas and other material by the supernova explosions of dying stars. Scrappy N55 managed to survive these explosions and become a nebula in its own right.

And in it you can see the circle of stellar life. A few hundred million years after LMC 4 was carved out by dying stars, the high-density gas and dust of N55 gave birth to a loose collection of O- and B-type stars. These are stars that are very hot, very bright and very high mass, and they typically have very short lives, up to just 30 million years.

The stars in N55 are therefore not very old at all. They light the nebula from within by ionising its hydrogen, causing the gas to glow pink in visible light.

Sadly, LHA 120-N55 is not much longer for this universe (at least in cosmic terms). While not all stars supernova, O-type stars very much do. In a few million years, when they reach the ends of their short but brilliant life cycles, they'll blow the structure to beautiful smithereens.