Hubble Spies an Amazing Cosmic Spiral

Article written: 6 Sep , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


The Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys has captured a remarkable image of a spiral in space. No, not a spiral galaxy, (and not another Norway Spiral!) but the formation of an unusual pre-planetary nebula in one of the most perfect geometrical spirals ever seen. The nebula, called IRAS 23166+1655, is forming around the star LL Pegasi (also known as AFGL 3068) in the constellation of Pegasus.

The image shows what appears to be a thin spiral pattern of amazing precision winding around the star, which is itself hidden behind thick dust. Mark Morris from UCLA and an international team of astronomers say that material forming the spiral is moving outwards at a speed of about 50,000 km/hour and by combining this speed with the distance between layers, they calculate that the shells are each separated by about 800 years.

The spiral pattern suggests a regular periodic origin for the nebula’s shape, and astronomers believe that shape is forming because LL Pegasi is a binary star system. One star is losing material as it and the companion star are orbiting each other. The spacing between layers in the spiral is expected to directly reflect the orbital period of the binary, which is estimated to be also about 800 years.

A progression of quasi-concentric shells has been observed around a number of preplanetary nebulae, but this almost perfect spiral shape is unique.

Morris and his team say that the structure of the AFGL 3068 envelope raises the possibility that binary companions are responsible for quasi-concentric shells in most or all of the systems in which they have been observed, and the lack of symmetry in the shells seen elsewhere can perhaps be attributed to orbital eccentricity, to different projections of the orbital planes, and to unfavorable illumination geometries.

Additionally – and remarkably — this object may be illuminated by galactic light.

This image appears like something from the famous “Starry Night” painting by Vincent van Gogh, and reveals what can occur with stars that have masses about half that of the Sun up to about eight times that of the Sun. They do not explode as supernovae at the ends of their lives, but instead can create these striking and intricate features as their outer layers of gas are shed and drift into space. This object is just starting this process and the central star has yet to emerge from the cocoon of enveloping dust.

Abstract: A Binary-Induced Pinwheel Outflow from the Extreme Carbon Star, AFGL 3068

Source: ESA

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24 Responses

  1. Astrofiend says

    WOW! Stunning. Just when you think you’ve seen it all…

    Can’t be long before the whackos start calling it an interdimensional vortex somehow connected with the hexagon on Saturn…

  2. Member
    Aqua says

    I have a new favorite astro image! Ditto on that “WOW!”… and “Whoa Nelly!

  3. Jorge says

    Holy Haleakala!

    (Anticipating Phil Plait’s reaction when he posts this picture. Because he will, oh yes, he will)

  4. Don Alexander says


    We must be looking right at the pole of the system.

  5. Archer says

    Wow, I’ll bet it’s an interdimensional vortex connected with the hexagon of Saturn somehow! 🙂

    Thanks for posting this!

  6. ND says

    It’s a malfunctioning Russian ICBM!

  7. Messenger says

    Amazing image.

  8. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    It is interesting, and something you’d expect binaries to do.


  9. Spiral Stairway to Heaven!

  10. DrFlimmer says

    @ Jorge

    He already has ;), with a nice explanation, and his reactions: “Wow!….. That must be a fake….. Well, no, it’s not…. WOW!”

  11. Richard Kirk says

    We seem to be looking slap down the axis of rotation, which is extraordinarly lucky. What is this shape in 3D?

    I would imagine the shells are approximately spherical. I would imagine if we were looking down a different axis, we would see a set of arcs in one direction perpendicular to the rotation axis, but less contrast in the other direction. The carbon-emitting star would chuck out stuff out in a pretty symmetrical manner, and the companion star is perturbing this into a set of shells.

    The Cotton Candy Nebula (IRAS 17150-3224) is a completely different object, but might give an idea of what this thing would look like from the side.

  12. SpaceNinja says

    That must be quite a thrill ride for any intelligent civilization living on a planet in that system.

    I wonder what our sun will look like from a distance when it starts to shed it’s layers? I wonder where we will be…

  13. wjwbudro says

    Interesting to me is the brighter objects in the lanes interacting with the material esp. the object at 2 o’clock in the far outer fringe.
    Don’t know what I’m looking at but, I do like to visually analyze these kinds of images. lol

  14. Andromeda says

    A wonderful spiral structure. An other fine geometrical structure is the Red Rectangular Nebula.

  15. gherreram says

    This proves the grat utility of the Hubble Telescope for theadvance of science in general and of astronomy in particular

  16. SnowShovel says

    Imagine! A crop circle in Pegasus! 🙂

  17. jimhenson says

    Does this show that planets in solar systems condense form stable lasting orbits around binary stars, in a way where both stars are nearly directly aligned by sight, like Mercury and the Sun are to all the other planets? Are these stars new or old stars? Cause if they are very young, a solar system might be forming.

  18. Terragen says

    A cosmic bullseye! Does anyone know the relative distance this object is from us?

  19. Salacious says

    Love the image, and especially interesting because the EU nutters can’t actually explain the observed features of an emitting spiral.

  20. Member


    Don’t bet on it; they always manage to pull something out of their asses!

  21. Jon Hanford says

    “The Cotton Candy Nebula (IRAS 17150-3224) is a completely different object, but might give an idea of what this thing would look like from the side.”

    Good call. I was thinking of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543): . Of course, I don’t know if the Central Star of either planetary is a binary. But the similarity in appearance is striking.

  22. vrillx says

    That looks like a stargate wormhole :))

  23. psteinb says

    In the opinion of my very amateur theoretical physicist mind, – I must say that this appears to be fake. If it had popped up around April 1 it would make more sense. The only other possibility is that this is an alien version of “X Marks the Spot” or… “Here we are!”.
    Seriously, I am yet to be convinced that there are natural conditions that could create this. I am very curious to its origin.

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