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Determining the chemical distribution of the galaxy is a tricky business. The ideal method is spectroscopy but since high quality spectroscopy takes bright targets, the number of potential targets is somewhat reduced. Stars seem like logical choices, but due to differential separation during formation, they don’t provide a true description of the interstellar medium. Clouds of gas and dust are the best choice, but must be illuminated by star formation. Another option is to search for newly formed planetary nebulae which are in the process of enriching the interstellar medium.
A new paper does just this, discovering a new planetary nebula in hopes of mapping the chemical abundance of the galaxy. The new nebula is almost the exact opposite direction of the galactic center when viewed from Earth. It lies at a distance of about 13 kpc (42,400 lightyears) from Earth making it one of the most distant planetary nebulae from the galactic center for which a distance has been determined and currently, the furthest with a measured chemical abundance.
The nebula was originally recorded on images taken by the INT Photometric Hα Survey (IPHAS) in 2003 but the automated program for detecting such objects initially missed the nebula due to its relatively large angular size (10 arcseconds). It was subsequently caught on visual inspection of the mosaics. Follow-up spectroscopy was conducted from 2005 to 2010 and reveal that the nebula is quite regular for planetary nebula, containing strong emission from hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and silicon. The rate of expansion combined with its physical size suggests an age of nearly 18,000 years.
This newly discovered nebula provides a rare data point for the chemical abundance for the outer portions of the galaxy. While the galaxy is known to be enriched towards the galactic center, there has been debate about how quickly, if at all, it falls towards the galactic edge where star formation, and thus, enrichment, is less common. While there aren’t enough known nebulae to determine just yet (only four others are known at similar distances), this planetary nebula suggests that the abundance levels off in the galactic outskirts.
The authors also note that this nebula, as well as potentially the others, aren’t native to the Milky Way. They lie near a structure known as the Monoceros Ring, which is a stream of stars believed to be stretched out as the Milky Way devours the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy.