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(JPL/NASA) The Dumbbell nebula is 1,360 light-years away in the Vulpecula constellation, and stretches across 4.5 light-years of space. That would more that fill the space between our sun and the nearest star, and it demonstrates how effective planetary nebulae are at returning much of a star’s material back to interstellar space at the end of their lives.
Spitzer’s infrared view shows a different side of this recycled stellar material. The diffuse green glow, which is brightest near the center, is probably from hot gas atoms being heated by the ultraviolet light from the central white dwarf.
A collection of clumps fill the central part of the nebula, and red-colored radial spokes extend well beyond. Astronomers think these features represent molecules of hydrogen gas, mixed with traces of heavier elements. Despite being broken apart by the ultraviolet light from the central white dwarf, much of this molecular material may survive intact and mix back into interstellar gas clouds, helping to fuel the next generation of stars. Similar structures are seen in the Helix and other planetary nebulae.