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Astronomers at the US space agency NASA have released an exceptionally rare look at a canopy of gas cloaking an ageing star. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope archive reveals nebula Hen 3-1357, more commonly known as the Stingray Nebula, has faded spectacularly fast in just 20 years.

Scientists have described such a sudden rate of change in a planetary nebula as “exceeding rare”.

This is very, very dramatic, and very weird

Dr Martín Guerrero

Comparing photos captured by the space telescope in 2016 with those shot in 1996 confirms just how drastically the nebula has faded and changed shape.

Translucent turquoise tendrils and filaments of gas close to the nebula’s core have all but disappeared.

The images have also revealed how the wave-like edges that gave this nebula its sea-themed nickname have almost disappeared.

Dr Martín Guerrero of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía confirms the nebula is now far less eye-catching against the inky blackness of space.

He said: “This is very, very dramatic, and very weird.

“What we’re witnessing is a nebula’s evolution in real time.

“In a span of years, we see variations in the nebula.

“We have not seen that before with the clarity we get with this view.”

NASA astronomers suggest unprecedented changes in the light emitted by glowing nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen being spewed by the dying star at the nebula’s centre are responsible for the drastic change.

In particular, the oxygen emission dimmed by a factor of almost 1,000 between 1996 and 2016.

Dr Bruce Balick of the University of Washington, who led the new research, said: “Changes in nebulae have been seen before, but what we have here are changes in the fundamental structure of the nebula.

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“In most studies, the nebula usually gets bigger. Here, it’s fundamentally changing its shape and getting fainter, and doing so on an unprecedented time scale.

“Moreover, to our surprise, it’s not growing any larger. Indeed, the once-bright inner elliptical ring seems to be shrinking as it fades.”

Although Earth-based observations of other planetary nebulae have hinted at evolving brightness, such speculations have only now been confirmed.

Dr Guerrero added only the orbital Hubble is up to the task of resolving the changes in structure in such a small nebula.

He said: “Because of Hubble’s optical stability, we are very, very confident that this nebula is changing in brightness with time.

“This is something that can only be confirmed with Hubble’s visual acuity.”

The nebula’s rapid changes are known as a response to its central star, SAO 244567, expanding due to a temperature drop, and consequently emitting less ionising radiation.

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