September 7, 2000: Glowing like a multi-faceted jewel, the planetary nebula IC 418 lies about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lepus. In this picture, the Hubble telescope reveals some remarkable textures weaving through the nebula. Their origin, however, is still uncertain.
A planetary nebula represents the final stage in the evolution of a star similar to our Sun. The star at the center of IC 418 was a red giant a few thousand years ago, but then ejected its outer layers into space to form the nebula, which has now expanded to a diameter of about 0.1 light-years. The stellar remnant at the center is the hot core of the red giant, from which ultraviolet radiation floods out into the surrounding gas, causing it to fluoresce. Over the next several thousand years, the nebula will gradually disperse into space, and then the star will cool and fade away for billions of years as a white dwarf. Our Sun is expected to undergo a similar fate, but fortunately this will not occur until some 5 billion years from now.