Star collision helps solve 16-year mystery of the Blue Ring Nebula

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NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Blesser

Take a moment in this hellish year to imagine that a little star is orbiting our sun. After eons, the two stars collide. The chaotic crash leaves behind a star and a fascinating blue cloud of dust and gas, a nebula, is spreading in the cosmos. The cloud spans a distance of about 13 light years, enough to engulf 10 solar systems stacked end to end.

While such a fate does not await our sun (although it is 2020, so …), this exact scenario may have occurred a few thousand years ago at TYC 2597-735-1, a star which rests more than 6,000 lights – years away from Earth. Since the discovery of the star and its intriguing blue ring by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer space telescope in 2004, astronomers have been intrigued by how it came about.

“Every time we thought we figured this out, something would tell us, ‘No, that’s not true,'” said Mark Seibert, astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-author of a new published study. in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

Using data from the telescope, also known as GALEX, and a suite of other terrestrial and space telescopes to study the so-called Blue Ring Nebula in more detail, the team of astronomers believe a stellar collision might have created cosmic strangeness. .

GALEX was launched in 2003 and, before being decommissioned 10 years later, studied the universe in ultraviolet light. He spotted an ultraviolet ring around TYC 2597-735-1 in 2004. To help visualize the cloud, researchers can color it. The image below shows the UV light displayed in blue and a pale pink ring that surrounds the debris, signifying visible light. The bright yellow ball in the center is TYC 2597-735-1.

Our vision of the Earth’s Blue Ring Nebula produces this stunning image, with UV light artificially colored blue and visible light pink. Astronomers believe they have perfected its strange 3D geometry.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / NASA / JPL-Caltech / M. Seibert (Carnegie Institution for Science) / K. Équipe Hoadley (Caltech) / GALEX

With the help of Hawaii’s WM Keck Observatory, the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, and space telescopes like NASA’s retired Spitzer, researchers began to establish facts about the cloud. Observations in different wavelengths of light and computer modeling helped tell the whole story and explain the origin of the Blue Ring.

It is a star the size of our sun engulfing a smaller star in a stellar merger. The sun-like star began to swell, growing large enough to capture the smaller star in its gravity. The two danced, gravitationally bound, for years and as the little star leaned closer, it began to tear parts of its larger dance partner, creating a disk of gas that enveloped the pair. When the smaller star was finally consumed, a ton of energy passed through the gaseous disc and expelled it as two cone-shaped clouds.

Because the Blue Ring Nebula is directly facing Earth, we see the cone clouds as a large ring across the sky. It’s a bit like looking at an ice cream cone. If you hold the cone horizontally against your eye (a bad idea) all you can see is a ring of ice at the top (before it slides across the ground.) Ultraviolet light is emitted from the atoms of hydrogen heated. in the cone.

The animation at the top of the article highlights the 3D structure of the nebula in impressive detail by rotating the cloud and giving us a better angle. (You may also notice an optical illusion where it looks like the two cones are moving toward each other, rather than spinning around the central star.)

Astronomers are also excited because they seized the fusion process at the most opportune moment. Don Neill, a Caltech research scientist and co-author of the article, compared it to a baby’s first steps in a version of Caltech. “If you blink you might miss it,” he says. This is the first time that researchers have been able to see a fusion system like this that is not shrouded in extreme amounts of dust, obscuring the star at its center.

In a few hundred thousand years, the Blue Ring nebula will be gone, as if it never was. Perhaps the same can be said of 2020 in a few months.

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