Hubble reveals an extraordinary image showing the last gasps of dying binary star system NGC 2346

A Spectacular Look at the Final Moments of a Dying Binary Star System

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a breathtaking new image showing the last gasps of a dying binary star system called NGC 2346. Located about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros, this planetary nebula provides a glimpse into the future of our own Sun and solar system.

An Intriguing Binary Star System

At the heart of NGC 2346 lies an intriguing binary star system. The two stars are so close together that they orbit one another every 16 days, making them extremely unusual. Astronomers believe the stars were not always so close. Initially, the binary stars had a much wider separation. Over time, one of the stars expanded into a red giant and engulfed its companion star. The companion spiralled inward, closer to the core of the red giant. This close encounter led to gas being expelled into a ring surrounding the central binary. Later, a faster stellar wind blew perpendicularly to the ring, inflating two giant bubbles and giving NGC 2346 its distinctive butterfly shape.

Hubble reveals an extraordinary image

This complex two-stage process resulted in the dramatic scene captured by Hubble. The image shows a billowing two-lobed structure of gas being ejected outward from a reddish central region—the last gasps of the dying binary star. Dark red and orange “wings” appear to emerge from the centre against the black backdrop of space. Interspersed are many pinpricks of light from distant background stars.

Planetary Nebulae Offer Insights into Stellar Evolution

NGC 2346 is classified as a planetary nebula, a type of emission nebula consisting of an expanding glowing shell of ionized gas ejected during the asymptotic giant branch phase of certain stars late in their life. The name “planetary nebula” is a historical misnomer, as they have nothing to do with planets. Instead, early astronomers named them for their visual similarity to giant planets like Saturn when viewed through small optical telescopes.

Planetary nebulae like NGC 2346 offer valuable insights into the future evolution of stars like our Sun. As stars age, they fuse hydrogen and helium in their cores into heavier elements. Eventually, the cores cool and the outer layers of the stars expand enormously, turning into red giant stars hundreds of times larger than when they were on the main sequence. Powerful stellar winds blow off the reddish outer layers, leaving behind the hot stellar core that ionizes the surrounding ejected gas, causing it to glow brightly. The exposed hot core is the central “heart” of the planetary nebula.

The Life Cycle of Our Sun

Our middle-aged Sun is currently a stable yellow dwarf star midway through its lifespan of about 10 billion years. In another 5 billion years or so, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel in its core and start to expand into a bloated red giant star. Its outer layers will swell beyond the orbit of Venus and possibly even Earth.

Eventually, the red giant Sun will eject its outer layers of gas, forming a glowing planetary nebula with its core exposed. This stellar remnant is destined to become a tiny, dense white dwarf that will gradually cool over the eons. The expelled gases that once made up the outer layers of the Sun will dissipate into the interstellar medium, enriching it with heavy elements forged during the star’s lifetime.

NGC 2346 gives astronomers a preview of this fate awaiting our solar system billions of years from now. By studying objects like this, scientists gain insights into stellar evolution and the life cycle and death of stars like our Sun.

Hubble reveals an extraordinary image

Key Facts about NGC 2346

  • Type: Planetary Nebula
  • Constellation: Monoceros
  • Distance from Earth: About 2,000 light-years
  • Central Star: Binary star system with two components orbiting every 16 days
  • nebula Diameter: About 1/3 light-year
  • Apparent Magnitude: +10.5
  • Age: Estimated at around 3,000 years old
  • Notable Features: Billowing two-lobed “butterfly” structure, reddish central region, dark red/orange hues

Hubble’s Revelatory Observations of NGC 2346

The new Hubble image reveals NGC 2346 in exquisite detail, showcasing the nebula’s full beauty and complexity. Hubble’s advanced cameras can detect the faint glow of ionized gases expelled by the central star system.

Past observations by Hubble and other telescopes have helped piece together the nebula’s history and characteristics:

  • 1994: Hubble first imaged NGC 2346 using its Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The photo revealed the nebula’s overall structure.
  • 2007: A Hubble image showcased NGC 2346’s central star better than ever before. It confirmed the central binary orbits every 16 days.
  • 2010: Hubble observations identified the reddish halo around the central star as material expelled roughly 3,000 years ago.
  • 2021: New near-infrared Hubble images provided insights into the aging central star’s history and temperature changes.

NGC 2346 has proven to be a fascinating target for Hubble over the years. Each new observation enables researchers to refine models of this nebula and binary star system. Hubble continues to provide unprecedented views that cannot be matched by telescopes on Earth due to atmospheric interference.

Hubble reveals an extraordinary image

The Importance of Studying Planetary Nebulae

There are thousands of known planetary nebulae occupying our Milky Way galaxy alone. Some are relatively close, like NGC 2346, allowing detailed study. Others are extremely distant in other galaxies. Observing these nebulae gives astronomers many valuable insights, such as:

  • Understanding stellar evolution, especially the asymptotic giant branch (AGB) phase which produces planetary nebulae
  • Studying dynamic processes as stars expel their outer layers
  • Measuring the chemical composition and abundances of elements ejected in the gas
  • Estimating the distances to other galaxies based on the properties of planetary nebulae within them
  • Gaining clues to the future fate of stars like our Sun

Planetary nebulae are some of the most colourful and striking objects visible with telescopes. Their bubbles, jets, halos, and intricately structured shells never cease to dazzle scientists and the public alike. Each discovery helps complete our picture of how stars are born, evolve, and die throughout the universe.

Frequently Asked Questions about NGC 2346

Q. What type of nebula is NGC 2346?

A. NGC 2346 is a planetary nebula, consisting of material ejected by a dying star late in its evolution. Planetary nebulae get their misleading name from their visual resemblance to planets through early telescopes.

Q. Where is NGC 2346 located?
A. NGC 2346 lies about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros. This places it relatively close by within our Milky Way galaxy.

Q. What powers the nebula’s glow?

A. The hot exposed core of NGC 2346’s central binary star ionizes the surrounding gas of the nebula, causing it to glow brightly across multiple wavelengths from X-ray to infrared.

Q. How was NGC 2346 created?

A. It was formed when one of the central binary stars engulfed its companion. This caused gas to be expelled into a ring shape. Stellar winds later created the nebula’s two-lobed, butterfly-like structure.

Q. How will our Sun end its life?
A. In around 5 billion years, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel and become a red giant star. It will eventually eject its outer layers into a planetary nebula, leaving only the core as a white dwarf remnant.

Q. Why is NGC 2346 important to study?

A. NGC 2346 gives astronomers insights into the later stages of star evolution. It also provides a glimpse of the eventual fate of our own Sun billions of years from now.

Q. How has Hubble Space Telescope contributed to our understanding of NGC 2346?

\A. Since 1994, Hubble has imaged NGC 2346 using advanced cameras that unveil fine structural details. Hubble observations have helped discern the nebula’s size, shape, and stellar characteristics over time.


  • NGC 2346 is a breathtaking planetary nebula showcasing the final stages of a dying binary star system located about 2,000 light-years away.
  • Hubble’s new image reveals the nebula’s billowing two-lobed “butterfly” structure in exquisite detail. Dark red and orange hues emerge against the black backdrop of space.
  • Studying objects like NGC 2346 gives vital insights into the life cycle of stars like our Sun. In 5 billion years, our Sun will swell into a red giant and eject its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula.
  • Hubble’s cameras can detect the faint glow of ionized gases expelled in the death throes of stars. Detailed Hubble observations have unraveled NGC 2346’s history and characteristics.
  • Planetary nebulae are some of the most visually striking phenomena in our universe. NGC 2346 continues to fascinate scientists and the public alike as a preview of the Sun’s fate billions of years from now.


This article is for informational and educational purposes only. The content was generated using publicly available data, and any resemblance to existing articles is coincidental.

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