(CNN) — The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a stunning new image of the glowing gas ejected from a dying star, which in this case happens to resemble a “cosmic dumbbell.”

The portrait may also include evidence that the star gobbled up another star, in a form of stellar cannibalism, before it collapsed.

NASA released the image of the Little Dumbbell Nebula, also known as Messier 76 or M76, to celebrate the 34th anniversary of the April 24, 1990, launch of the space observatory.

The nebula, 3,400 light-years away in the Perseus constellation, is an expanding shell of gases kicked out by a dying red giant star. The cosmic object is known as a planetary nebula, but it has nothing to do with planets.

Planetary nebulae usually have a rounded structure and were so named because they initially resembled the disks from which planets form when French astronomer Charles Messier discovered one for the first time in 1764. Pierre Méchain discovered the Little Dumbbell Nebula in 1780, and astronomers first took a detailed view of it in 1891. The photogenic nebula has been a favorite of professional and amateur astronomers ever since due to its unique shape.

If researchers confirm the nebula holds evidence of a case of cosmic cannibalism, it could provide proof of the red giant’s long-theorized companion.

Stellar violence on display

The Little Dumbbell Nebula includes a ring, which, from our perspective, looks more like a central bar that connects two lobes on either side of the ring. Before the aging red giant star collapsed, it released a ring of gas and dust. Then, the ring was likely shaped by a companion star, astronomers believe, and the gas and dust ring eventually formed a thick disk.

The companion star, once in orbit around the red giant, is nowhere to be seen in Hubble’s image. Astronomers think the red giant star swallowed its companion, and by studying the ring, they could tease out “forensic evidence” of this cosmic, cannibalistic act, according to a NASA release.

Since collapsing, the red giant star has transformed into a dead stellar remnant known as an ultra-dense white dwarf star. The white dwarf has a blazing temperature of 250,000 degrees Fahrenheit (138,871 degrees Celsius), making it 24 times hotter than our sun’s surface and one of the hottest known white dwarf stars.

The white dwarf is the bright white light at the center of the nebula in Hubble’s image.

Meanwhile, the two lobes seen in the portrait represent hot gas escaping and being carried by a hurricane-like force as material releases from the dying star, propelling it across space at 2 million miles per hour. The stellar wind coming off the star collides with cooler and slower-moving gas initially expelled by the star much earlier in its lifetime, which can be seen in the lobes.

Ultraviolet radiation from the scorching hot star causes gases to glow in different colors representing different elements, such as red to indicate nitrogen and blue for oxygen.

Astronomers estimate that within 15,000 years, the nebula will vanish from the night sky as it continues to expand and grow more dim.

Hubble’s continuing legacy

The Little Dumbbell Nebula is just one of 53,000 astronomical objects that Hubble has observed over 34 years, and to date, the telescope has made 1.6 million observations. Astronomers around the world rely on the telescope, and its growing database, to make new discoveries.

“The space telescope is the most scientifically productive space astrophysics mission in NASA history,” according to a NASA release.

Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope operate as complements to one another, gathering observations across different wavelengths of light for a sharper, deeper look at the universe as astronomers seek to unravel the mysteries around supernovas, distant galaxies, exoplanets and other celestial oddities.

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