NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE has been a busy spacecraft since its launch on Dec. 14, 2009. It has found asteroids and comets, and now has found a cosmic barbeque pit. Well, not really, but the green material in the cloud of gas and dust surrounding the Berkeley 59 cluster is from heated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, (PAHs) molecules that can be found on Earth in barbecue pits, exhaust pipes and other places where combustion has occurred. The “coals,” or the glowing red is warm dust heated by hot young stars within the nebula.
Red sources within the green nebula indicate a second generation of stars forming at the surface of the natal cloud, possibly as a consequence of heating and compression from the younger stars. A supernova remnant associated with this region, called NGC 7822, indicates that a massive star has already exploded, blowing the cloud open in a “champagne flow” and leaving behind this floral remnant. Blue dots sprinkled throughout are foreground stars in our Milky Way galaxy.
Berkeley 59 and NGC 7822 are located in the constellation of Cepheus at a distance of about 3,300 light-years from Earth.
PAHs are interesting because they are a candidate molecule linked to the earliest forms of life. They can can be found throughout the interstellar medium.