Astronomy Picture of the Day – The Medusa Nebula

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2015 June 17

The Medusa Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: European Southern Observatory, VLT

 

Explanation: Braided, serpentine filaments of glowing gas suggest this nebula’s popular name, The Medusa Nebula. Also known as Abell 21, this Medusa is an old planetary nebula some 1,500 light-years away along the southern border of the constellation Gemini. Like its mythological namesake, the nebula is associated with a dramatic transformation. The planetary nebula phase represents a final stage in the evolution of low mass stars like the sun, as they transform themselves from red giants to hot white dwarf stars and in the process shrug off their outer layers. Ultraviolet radiation from the hot star powers the nebular glow. An unrelated, bright, foreground star is near center in this close-up, telescopic view, while the Medusa’s transforming central star is actually the dimmer star below center and toward the right-hand part of the frame. The Medusa Nebula is estimated to be over 4 light-years across.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos!Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2012 January 31
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

The Helix Nebula from the VISTA Telescope
Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson; Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit  

 

 

Explanation: Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of the Water Bearer (Aquarius) and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken three colors on infrared light by the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for Dec. 30th

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos!Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2011 December 30
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

The Diner at the Center of the Galaxy
Illustration Credit: ESO/MPE/Marc Schartmann  

 

Explanation: The monster at the center of our Galaxy is about to get fed. Recent observations by the Very Large Telescopes indicate that a cloud of gas will venture too close to the supermassive black hole at the Galactic center. The gas cloud is being disrupted, stretched out, heated up, and some of it is expected to fall into the black hole over the next two years. In this artist’s illustration, what remains of the blob after a close pass to the black hole is shown in red and yellow, arching out from the gravitational death trap to its right. The cloud’s orbit is shown in red, while the orbits of central stars are shown in blue. The infalling nebula is estimated to contain several times the mass of our Earth, while the central black hole, thought to correspond to the radio source Sagittarius A*, contains about four million times the mass of our Sun. Once it falls in, nothing is expected to be heard from the doomed gas ever again.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for October 9th

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

SDSS J102915+172927: A Star That Should Not Exist
Image Credit: ESO, DSS2 

 

Explanation: Why does this star have so few heavy elements? Stars born in the generation of our Sun have an expected abundance of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium mixed into their atmospheres. Stars born in the generation before our Sun, Population II stars, the stars that created most of the heavy elements around us today, are seen to have some, although fewer, elements heavier than H and He. Furthermore, even the elusive never-seen first stars in the universe, so-called Population III stars, are predicted to have a large mass and a small but set amount of heavy elements. Yet low-mass Milky Way star SDSS J102915+172927, among others, appears to have fewer metals than ever predicted for any stars, including at least 50 times less lithium than came out of the Big Bang. The unusual nature of this star, initially cataloged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and pictured above, was discovered by detailed spectroscopic observations by a large VLT telescope in Chile. Many models of star formation indicate that such a star should not even form. Research is ongoing, however, with one leading hypothesis holding that fragile primordial lithium was destroyed in the star’s hot core.