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



NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Pain

Take a moment from this hellish year to imagine a little star orbiting our sun. After eons, two stars collide. The chaotic crash leaves behind a star and a mesmerizing blue cloud of dust and gas, nebula, pours into space. The cloud extends for a distance of about 13 light years, enough to absorb 10 solar systems stacked next to each other.

Although such a fate does not await our sun (although it is 2020, so …), this exact scenario may have occurred several thousand years ago at TYC 2597-735-1, a star that lies above 6000 light years away from Earth. After the discovery of the star and its intriguing blue ring by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer space telescope in 2004, astronomers are puzzled by how it came into being.

“Every time we think we’ve come up with this thing, something is going to tell us, ‘No, that’s not right,'” said Mark Seibert, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution of Science and co-author of a new study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

Using data from the telescope, also known as GALEX, and a set of other ground-based and space-based telescopes to study the so-called Blue Ring Nebula in more detail, the astronomers team suggested that a stellar collision may have created a cosmic oddity.

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 you visualize the cloud, researchers can color it. The image below shows UV light shown in blue and a faint pink ring circling the debris, indicating visible light. The bright yellow ball in the center is TYC 2597-735-1.

nebula blue blue ring

Our view of the Blue Ring from the Earth Nebula creates this stunning image with artificially colored blue UV light and visible light pink. Astronomers believe they have developed its strange 3D geometry.

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

With the help of Hawaii’s WM Keck Observatory, the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, and space telescopes such as NASA’s retired Spitzer, researchers have begun to establish some facts about the cloud. Observations at different wavelengths of light and computer modeling helped to tell the full story and explain the origin of the Blue Ring.

It includes a star the size of our sun, which absorbs a smaller star in a stellar fusion. The sun-like star began to bubble, large enough to catch the smaller star in its gravity. The two danced, gravitationally bound, for years, and as the younger star leaned closer, she began to tear apart parts of her larger dancing partner, creating a gas disk that enveloped the couple. When the smaller star was finally consumed, a ton of energy cut through the gas disk and pushed it out like two cone-shaped clouds.

Because the Blue Ring Nebula faces the Earth directly, we see cone-shaped clouds as a large ring in the sky. It’s like watching an ice cream cone. If you hold the cone close to your eye horizontally (bad idea), all you can see is an ice cream ring on top (before it slips to the ground.) Ultraviolet light is released from the heating hydrogen atoms up into the cone.

The animation at the top of the article highlights the 3D structure of the nebula with impressive details, waving the cloud and giving us a better angle. (You may also notice an optical illusion in which the two cones appear to move toward each other instead of rotating around a central star.)

Astronomers are also excited to catch the fusion process at the right time. Don Neil, a Caltech scientist and co-author of the paper, likened it to capturing the baby’s first steps in Caltech. “If you blink, you can miss it,” he said. For the first time, researchers are able to see a merger system as one that is not wrapped in extreme amounts of dust, covering the star in its center.

In a few hundred thousand years, the Blue Ring Nebula will disappear as if it had never been there. Maybe we can say the same for 2020 in a few months.


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