In Greek mythology, Medusa is a hideous-looking creature with snakes for hair. The nebula that shares her name is anything but hideous, however, as a just-released image from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) proves.
The shot comes from the ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile and provides the most detailed look at the nebula every captured, the ESO said Wednesday in a statement. The nebula also goes by the less fanciful names of Sharpless 2-274 (a cataloging system invented by Stewart Sharpless in 1953) and Abell 21 (after the astronomer who discovered it in 1955). It's located about 1,500 light-years from Earth in the Gemini constellation and stretches about four light-years across.
The gorgeous clouds of gas that comprise the nebula come from a dying star at its center that's in the final stages as it transitions from a red giant to a white dwarf. Violent streams of ultraviolet radiation from this star strip electrons from the gas floating away from it, creating ionized gas -- and the beautiful range of colors visible in the image.
The red colors correspond to hydrogen gas, while the green represents something known as doubly ionized oxygen, a molecule that's been stripped of two electrons and was once thought to be a completely separate element called nebulium.
Our sun is heading toward the path of creating its very own unique nebula when it explodes -- something that's not predicted to happen for another 5 billion years -- as seen in this video from NASA and the European Space Agency. At least the end will be beautiful.
For a more detailed close-up of the Medusa Nebula, see this ESO video. For a long-range zoom, check out this video clip. Or just gaze upon the beauty that results from a star's death in the image above.