Death of a star

December 2, 2009

mysteryimageWhat do you see in this image?  Last weekend, readers of this blog theorized about the image to the left, and came up with some beautiful ideas.  An intergalactic butterfly, a space angel, two black holes meeting, looking through the tail of a comet, cosmic mitosis, a speeding galaxy, two stars kissing, star fish kissing, space fish kissing, and a space hourglass were just some of the ideas that also included nebulae, explosions, and (more than once) a mammogram (oh, context is everything, isn’t it, my friends?).

I was overcome by the beauty in your ideas, and the freshness with which you saw this image, which is at once so powerful and yet now almost commonplace in the wealth of detail-rich images that we now routinely get from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Such intricate images are now released regularly … so regularly that they rarely even make the paper.

But really … isn’t it beautiful?

It looks so fragile, so sweet, so … lovely.  You could hang it on your wall. I wonder if it would shock you to hear that this lovely filagree is actually a tremendous explosion of gases from a dying star 3,800 light-years away.  The star, once about five times as big as our Sun, has grown and expanded to many times its size, just as all stars its size and temperature do, until it is as wide as a thousand Suns, all lined up as if they were waiting in line for a once-in-a-lifetime event.  And in fact it is.  The picture you see above is a snapshot of a moment in time during the very death of the star at the center.

The cosmic hourglass you see there is not sheer, but in fact “roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit….tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour—fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes!”  The gases are cast off in layers, taking shapes that tell us about the conditions under which they were shed, and these cast-off gases have begun to glow, basking in the stream of ultraviolet radiation in which the dying star bathes its surroundings, giving them the ultimate in sunburn, next to which our reddened skin would pale.

We can learn a lot from this picture.  The Hubble scientists tell us:

The WFC3 image reveals a complex history of ejections from the star. The star first evolved into a huge red-giant star, with a diameter of about 1,000 times that of our Sun. It then lost its extended outer layers. Some of this gas was cast off from its equator at a relatively slow speed, perhaps as low as 20,000 miles an hour, creating the doughnut-shaped ring. Other gas was ejected perpendicular to the ring at higher speeds, producing the elongated “wings” of the butterfly-shaped structure. Later, as the central star heated up, a much faster stellar wind, a stream of charged particles traveling at more than 2 million miles an hour, plowed through the existing wing-shaped structure, further modifying its shape.

All that, my friends, and much more, from a picture.  An image.  A snapshot that three guys — let’s call them Keith, Howard, and Bruce — took one day with our planet’s most amazing camera, a camera that can see into the far depths of outer space.