September 9, 2004: In this detailed view from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the so-called Cat's Eye Nebula looks like the penetrating eye of the disembodied sorcerer Sauron from the film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings." The nebula, formally cataloged NGC 6543, is every bit as inscrutable as the J.R.R. Tolkien phantom character. Though the Cat's Eye Nebula was one of the first planetary nebulae to be discovered, it is one of the most complex such nebulae seen in space.
A planetary nebula forms when Sun-like stars gently eject their outer gaseous layers that form bright nebulae with amazing and confounding shapes.
As if the Cat's Eye Nebula itself isn't spectacular enough, this new image taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) reveals the full beauty of a bull's eye pattern of eleven or even more concentric rings, or shells, around the Cat's Eye. Each 'ring' is actually the edge of a spherical bubble seen projected onto the sky that's why it appears bright along its outer edge.
Observations suggest the star ejected its mass in a series of pulses at 1,500-year intervals. These convulsions created dust shells, which each contain as much mass as all of the planets in our solar system combined (still only one percent of the Sun's mass). These concentric shells make a layered, onion-skin structure around the dying star. The view from Hubble is like seeing an onion cut in half, where each skin layer is discernible.