The Frosty Leo Nebula (IRAS 09371+1212) is an expanding bipolar protoplanetary nebula, located about 3,000 light-years away in the constellation of Leo. The nebula has acquired its curious name as it has been found to be rich in water in the form of ice grains, and because it is located in the constellation of Leo.
Despite their name, protoplanetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets: they are clouds of dust and gas formed from material shed by an aging central star similar in mass to our Sun. This nebula is particularly noteworthy because it has formed far from the galactic plane, away from interstellar clouds that may block our view.
The intricate shape comprises a spherical halo, a dense disk around the central star, jet-like outflows from this star in the inner regions, lobes and gigantic loops. This complex structure strongly suggests that the formation processes are complex and it has been suggested that there could be a second star, currently unseen, contributing to the shaping of the nebula.
Protoplanetary nebulae like the Frosty Leo Nebula have brief lifespans by astronomical standards and are precursors to the planetary nebula phase, in which radiation from the star will make the nebula’s gas light up brightly. Their rarity makes studying them a priority for astronomers who seek to understand better the evolution of stars.
This image was created from images taken with the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.
Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA