Scientists peered into the depths of the Butterfly Nebula, also known as NGC 6302, and discovered peculiar formations. Despite their efforts, the origins of these structures remain a mystery.

As a star with a mass less than 10 times that of the sun reaches the end of its hydrogen fuel supply, it swells and transforms into a red giant. It then fuses helium until it too is depleted.

This marks the birth of a planetary nebula, as the red giant sheds its outer layers, leaving behind only its core, which becomes a white dwarf. While most nebulae take on a circular shape, some, such as the Butterfly Nebula, display an hourglass shape with empty regions. A team of researchers have delved into the study of this enigmatic nebula.

Mysterious activity observed in the Butterfly Nebula wings

Previous research has uncovered that stars of this type form when one star orbits closely around another, drawing in dust to create the “butterfly wings” shape. However, something unexpected is happening within the wings of the NGC 6302 nebula. Since 2009, significant changes have been observed within the wings.

Bruce Balick, a professor of astronomy, explains that the Butterfly Nebula is exceptional in terms of the mass, velocity, and complexity of the material being ejected from its central star, which is more than 200 times hotter than the sun but only slightly larger than Earth. He states that “I’ve been analyzing Hubble images for years, and I’ve never seen anything like it”.

The team of researchers discovered that matter is being ejected from the wings in an asymmetrical manner at a speed of more than 1,000 kilometers per second. Some jets of matter intersect, creating unusual and irregular structures.

The researchers believe that these processes could be caused by the central star merging with another, but it’s currently impossible to confirm as visibility is limited in the center of the nebula. The next step is to wait for observations from the James-Webb telescope, as its NIRCam instrument, which specializes in infrared, will be able to penetrate through the dust.