Greek Observatory Probes Ancient Star

by Tammy Plotner on February 27, 2013

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An image of the enclosure of the new 2.3-m Aristarchos telescope, sited at Helmos Observatory. Credit: P. Boumis, National Observatory of Athens.

An image of the enclosure of the new 2.3-m Aristarchos telescope, sited at Helmos Observatory. Credit: P. Boumis, National Observatory of Athens.

Some 2,500 years ago, a Greek astronomer named Aristarchus certainly made some very correct assumptions when he postulated the Sun to be at the center of our known Universe and that the Earth revolved around it. Through this, he also knew that the stars were incredibly far away and now his namesake telescope, the new 2.3 meter Aristarchos, is taking that distant look from the Helmos Observatory, high atop the Peloponnese Mountains in Greece. Its purpose is to determine the distance and evolution of a mysterious star system – one which is encased in an ethereal nebula.

While looking at the demise of a possible binary star system, researchers Panos Boumis of the National Observatory of Athens and John Meaburn of the University of Manchester, set out to photograph this enigmatic study with the narrowband imaging camera onboard the Aristarchos telescope. Their target designation is planetary nebula KjPn8, and it was originally discovered during the 1950′s Palomar Sky Survey. What makes it out of the ordinary is two huge lobes, measuring a quarter of a degree across, which surround the system. This artifact was researched by Mexican astronomers at the San Pedro Martir Observatory some four decades after its revelation, but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the Hubble Space Telescope uncovered its central star.

An image of the giant lobes of the planetary nebula KjPn 8 in the light of the emission lines of hydrogen and singly ionised nitrogen, obtained with the narrowband camera on the new 2.3-m Aristarchos telescope. Detailed measurements of the lobes have allowed the determination of their expansion velocity, distance and ages. The results indicate their origin in a remarkable eruptive binary system. Credit: P. Boumis / J. Meaburn

An image of the giant lobes of the planetary nebula KjPn 8 in the light of the emission lines of hydrogen and singly ionised nitrogen, obtained with the narrowband camera on the new 2.3-m Aristarchos telescope. Detailed measurements of the lobes have allowed the determination of their expansion velocity, distance and ages. The results indicate their origin in a remarkable eruptive binary system. Credit: P. Boumis / J. Meaburn

Dr. Boumis and Prof. Meaburn began to study this ancient cosmic artifact, concentrating on measuring the expansion with utmost accuracy. Through their work, they were unable to uncover the system’s distance and trace the history of the lobes through time. What they discovered was KjPn8 is roughly 6,000 light years away and the lobes of material have three epochs: 3200, 7200 and 50,000 years. According to the research team: “The inner lobe of material is expanding at 334 km per second, suggesting it originates in an Intermediate Luminosity Optical Transient (ILOT) event. ILOTs are caused by the transfer of material from a massive star to its less massive companion, in turn creating jets that flow in different directions. We believe that the core of KjPn8 is therefore a binary system, where every so often ILOT events lead to the ejection of material at high speed.”

It is certainly a triumph for the Aristachos Telescope and the new Greek facility. Dr. Bournis is quite proud of the conclusive results gathered by telescope – especially when the object in question cries out for more research. He comments: “Greece is one of the global birthplaces of astronomy, so it is fitting that research into the wider universe continues in the 21st century. With the new telescope we expect to contribute to that global effort for many years to come.”

Original Story Source: Royal Astronomical Society News Release.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

JonHanford February 28, 2013 at 4:18 PM

KjPn 8 is quite a peculiar planetary nebula and at over a quarter of a degree in diameter, one of the largest objects of its type in the sky.

A paper by Boumis and Meaburn discussing these new observations of KjPn 8 can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.5589

Richard B. Hoppe March 2, 2013 at 9:39 PM

“Through their work, they were unable to uncover the system’s distance and trace the history of the lobes through time.”

Don’t you mean “were able to uncover …”?

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