Space is full of spine-chilling sights like grinning jack-o'-lantern galaxies, cosmic ghosts and dead stars. The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile gazed into space and saw a skull staring back.
The Skull Nebula, more formally known as NGC 246, is tucked into the constellation Cetus (The Whale) around 1,600 light-years away. You'll need a little imagination to spot the skull shape, but it's an appropriately eerie space apparition for the Halloween season.
This new view of the Skull Nebula highlights its hydrogen (red) and oxygen (light blue) content. The gases appear to glow.
The nebula "formed when a sun-like star expelled its outer layers in its old age, leaving behind its naked core — a white dwarf — one of two stars that can be seen at the very center of NGC 246," ESO said in a statement on Friday.
Those two stars aren't alone. There's also a red dwarf hidden inside that can't be seen in the ESO image. The stars are engaged in an elaborate orbital dance. "Collectively, these three stars establish NGC 246 as the first known planetary nebula with a hierarchical triple stellar system at its center," ESO said.
The Skull Nebula isn't just another pretty space face. It's an astronomical marvel.