Astronomer Creates First 3D Image Of Cat's Eye Nebula And It's Doggone Mesmerizing

cats eye nebula
A team of researchers have created the first ever computer generated 3D model of the Cat's Eye Nebula, and it is simply purrrfect. The new image also reveals a pair of symmetric rings that encircle the nebula's outer shell.

The Cat's Eye Nebula is one of the most complex planetary nebula currently known. It lies around 3,000 light-years from Earth, and is part of the Draco constellation. This awe inspiring nebula has been photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in high resolution, which unveiled the sophisticated structure of knots, spherical shells, and arc like filaments.

The study that came up with the 3D image was led by Ryan Clairmont, an astronomy enthusiast. His curiosity about what gave the nebula its unique and intricate shape spurred the investigation. In order to figure this out, he enlisted the help of Dr. Wolfgang Steffen of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Nico Koning from the University of Calgary, who created SHAPE, a 3D astrophysical modelling software that is capable of capturing a three-dimensional image of a nebula known as NGC 6543.

remixed hubble cats eye
This is a remix of an image taken by Hubble telescope in 2008

The labyrinthine structure comprising the Cat's Eye perplexed the astrophysicists, as it could not be explained by any previously accepted theories for planetary nebula formation. More recent research has indicated that precessing jets could have been shaping mechanisms in complex planetary nebula such as the Cat's Eye, but had not had a detailed model made to investigate further.

The data seems to indicate that the rings are only partial, meaning that the precessing jet never completed a full 360 degree rotation. This would mean the evolution of the jets were short-lived. The fact that only binary stars produce the power to create a precessing jet, seems to point to a system of this type lies at the heart of the Cat's Eye Nebula.

Clairmont, who is now an prospective undergraduate at Stanford University, stated, "When I first saw the Cat's Eye Nebula, I was astonished by its beautiful, perfectly symmetric structure. I was even more surprised that its 3D structure was not full understood." He continued, "It was very rewarding to be able to do astrophysical research of my own that actually has an in impact in the field." Clairmont is hopeful that by fully understanding how these types of nebula form will give insight into the eventual fate of our own Sun.