The image, prepared by the Hubble Heritage team, attempts to show the stars in M15 in their true colors. The brightest cluster stars are red giants, with an orange color due to surface temperatures lower than our Sun's. Most of the fainter stars are hotter, giving them a bluish-white color. If we lived in the core of M15, our sky would blaze with tens of thousands of brilliant stars both day and night!
Nestled among the myriads of stars visible in the Hubble image is an astronomical oddity. The pinkish object to the upper left of the cluster's core is a gas cloud surrounding a dying star. Known as Kuestner 648, this was the first planetary nebula to be identified in a globular cluster. In 1928, F. G. Pease, working at the 100-inch telescope of California's Mount Wilson Observatory, photographed the spectrum of K 648 and discovered the telltale bright emission of a nebular gas cloud rather than a normal star. In the ensuing 70 years, only three more planetary nebulae have been discovered in globular clusters.
The stars in M15 and other globular clusters are estimated to be about 12 billion years old. They were among the first generations of stars to form in the Milky Way. Our Sun, by comparison, is a youthful 4.6 billion years old. As a star like the Sun ages, it exhausts the hydrogen that fuels its nuclear fusion, and increases in size to become a red giant. Then it ejects its outer layers into space, producing a planetary nebula. The remnant star at the center of the nebula gradually dies away as a white dwarf.
Like all planetary nebulae, K648 is actually a huge cloud of gas, glowing because of ultraviolet light emitted by the stars in their centers. The surface temperature of the central star of K 648 is about 70,000 degrees Fahrenheit (40,000 degrees Celsius), and analysis of the Hubble data indicates that the star's remaining mass is only 60 percent that of our Sun. The star's outer layers were ejected some 4,000 years ago (i.e., before the light we see was emitted).
The most massive stars use up their hydrogen first, and then less-massive stars in turn run out of fuel, become red giants, and fade away. For stars less massive than the Sun, some astronomers believe the evolutionary process to be so gradual that a visible planetary nebula will not form. At the present time, the most massive stars remaining in M15 have about 80 percent of the mass of our Sun, a fact that makes the existence of a planetary nebula like K 648 something of a mystery. The Hubble images used to make this image were taken to test the idea that the progenitor of K 648 may have "borrowed" some mass from a nearby stellar companion. No such companion was revealed by Hubble, so the mystery remains unsolved. One possibility is that the progenitor of K 648 was two stars, which then merged together to become the single star now seen at the center of the nebula.
The Hubble data on K 648 were obtained and analyzed by a team of Space Telescope Science Institute astronomers, including H. E. Bond, D. R. Alves, and M. Livio, who are interested in the origin and evolution of planetary nebulae and their central stars.
Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The image has been taken taken in December 1998, exposed 3.7 hours with
the HST's WFPC2.
Detail cropped from the image of M15 above, showing the planetary nebula Pease 1, or K648. The images were processed with respect to color representation. The first image shows how the planetary nebula would look in "natural" color, i.e. with equal sensitivity at all wavelengths, while the second image was adjusted to the sensitivity of the human eye, i.e. this looks very much like you would see Pease1 if your eyes were sensitive enough.
Pease 1 (K648), represented in false color.
Last Modification: 13 May 2001, 23:00 MET