The interplay of energy and matter creates beautiful sights. Here on Earth, we enjoy rainbows, auroras, and sunsets and sunrises. But out in space, nature creates extraordinarily dazzling structures called nebulae that can span hundreds of light-years. Nebulae are probably the most beautiful objects out there.
While searching for young stars and their circumstellar disks, Hubble captured a classic reflection nebula.
In April 2021 Hubble released its 31st-anniversary image. It’s a portrait of AG Carinae, one of the most luminous stars in the entire Milky Way. AG Carinae is in a reckless struggle with itself, periodically ejecting matter until it reaches stability sometime in the future.
Thanks to the Hubble, we get to watch the brilliant struggle.
Some stars die a beautiful death, ejecting their outer layers of gas into space, then lighting it all up with their waning energy. When that happens, we get a nebula. Astronomers working with the Gemini Observatory just shared a new image of one of these spectacular objects.
2,000 light years away, in the Orion constellation, lurks an eerie looking creature, made of glowing gas lit up by young stars: the Cosmic Bat.
Its real name is NGC 1788. It’s a reflection nebula, meaning the light of nearby stars is strong enough to light it up, but not strong enough to ionize the gas, like in an emission nebula. Even though the stars are young and bright, the Cosmic Bat is still hidden. It took the powerful Very Large Telescope (VLT) to capture this image.
Saturn is an icon. There’s nothing else like it in the Solar System, and it’s something even children recognize. But there’s a distant object that astronomers call the Saturn nebula, because from a distance it resembles the planet, with its pronounced ringed shape.
The Saturn nebula bears no relation to the planet, except in shape. It’s about five thousand light years away, so in a small backyard telescope, it does resemble the planet. But when astronomers train large telescopes on it, the illusion falls apart.
Our universe is capable of some truly frightening scenarios, and in this case we have an apparent tragedy: two stars, lifelong companions, decide to move away from the Milky Way galaxy together. But after millions of years of adventure into intergalactic space, one star murders and consumes the other. It now continues its journey through the universe alone, much brighter than before, surrounded by a shell of leftover remnants.
At least, we think. All we have to go on right now is a crime scene.
The Milky Way is an extremely big place. Measured from end to end, our galaxy in an estimated 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31,000 – 55,000 parsecs) in diameter. And it is extremely well-populated, with an estimated 100 to 400 million stars contained within. And according to recent estimates, it is believed that there are as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. And our galaxy is merely one of trillions within the Universe.
So if we were to break it down, just how much matter would we find out there? Estimating how much there is overall would involve some serious math and incredible figures. But what about a single light year? As the most commonly-used unit for measuring the distances between stars and galaxies, determining how much stuff can be found within a single light year (on average) is a good way to get an idea of how stuff is out there.
Even though the name is a little confusing, you probably already know that a light year is the distance that light travels in the space of a year. Given that the speed of light has been measured to 299,792, 458 m/s (1080 million km/h; 671 million mph), the distance light travels in a single year is quite immense. All told, a single light year works out to 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers (5,878,625,373,183.6 mi).
So to determine how much stuff is in a light year, we need to take that distance and turn it into a cube, with each side measuring one light year in length. Imagine that giant volume of space (a little challenging for some of us to get our heads around) and imagine just how much “stuff” would be in there. And not just “stuff”, in the sense of dust, gas, stars or planets, either. How much nothing is in there, as in, the empty vacuum of space?
There is an answer, but it all depends on where you put your giant cube. Measure it at the core of the galaxy, and there are stars buzzing around all over the place. Perhaps in the heart of a globular cluster? In a star forming nebula? Or maybe out in the suburbs of the Milky Way? There’s also great voids that exist between galaxies, where there’s almost nothing.
Density of the Milky Way:
There’s no getting around the math in this one. First, let’s figure out an average density for the Milky Way and then go from there. Its about 100,000 to 180,000 light-years across and 1000 light-years thick. According to my buddy and famed astronomer Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy), the total volume of the Milky Way is about 8 trillion cubic light-years.
And the total mass of the Milky Way is 6 x 1042 kilograms (that’s 6,000 trillion trillion trillion metric tons or 6,610 trillion trillion trillion US tons). Divide those together and you get 8 x 1029 kilograms (800 trillion trillion metric tons or 881.85 trillion trillion US tons) per light year. That’s an 8 followed by 29 zeros. This sounds like a lot, but its actually the equivalent of 0.4 Solar Masses – 40% of the mass of our Sun.
In other words, on average, across the Milky Way, there’s about 40% the mass of the Sun in every cubic light year. But in an average cubic meter, there’s only about 950 attograms, which is almost one femtogram (a quadrillionth of a gram of matter), which is pretty close to nothing. Compare this to air, which has more than a kilogram of mass per cubic meter.
To be fair, in the densest regions of the Milky Way – like inside globular clusters – you can get densities of stars with 100, or even 1000 times greater than our region of the galaxy. Stars can get as close together as the radius of the Solar System. But out in the vast interstellar gulfs between stars, the density drops significantly. There are only a few hundred individual atoms per cubic meter in interstellar space.
And in the intergalactic voids; the gulfs between galaxies, there are just a handful of atoms per meter. Like it or not, much of the Universe is pretty close to being empty space, with just trace amounts of dust or gas particles to be found between all the stars, galaxies, clusters and super clusters.
So how much stuff is there in a light year? It all depends on where you look, but if you spread all the matter around by shaking the Universe up like a snow globe, the answer is very close to nothing.
The Boomerang Nebula, a proto-planetary nebula that was created by a dying red giant star (located about 5000 light years from Earth), has been a compelling mystery for astronomers since 1995. It was at this time, thanks to a team using the now-decommissioned 15-meter Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SESTI) in Chile, that this nebula came to be known as the coldest object in the known Universe.
And now, over 20 years later, we may know why. According to a team of astronomers who used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) – located in the Atacama desert in northern Chile – the answer may involve a small companion star plunging into the red giant. This process could have ejected most of the larger star’s matter, creating an ultra-cold outflow of gas and dust in the process.
Originally discovered in 1980 by a team of astronomers using the Anglo-Australian telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, the mystery of this nebula became apparent when astronomers noted that it appeared to be absorbing the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This background radiation, which is the energy leftover from the Big Bang, provides the natural background temperature of space – 2.725 K (–270.4 °C; -454.7 °F).
For the Boomerang Nebula to absorb that radiation, it had to be even colder than the CMB. Subsequent observations revealed that this was in fact the case, as the nebula has a temperature of less than half a degree K (-272.5 °C; -458.5 °F). The reason for this, according to the recent study, has to do with the gas cloud that extends from the central star to a distance of 21,000 AU (21 thousands times the distance between Earth and the Sun).
The gas cloud – which is the result of a jet that is being fired by the central star – is expanding at a rate that is about 10 times faster than what a single star could produce on its own. After conducting measurements with ALMA that revealed regions of the outflow that were never before seen (out to a distance of about 120,000 AUs), the team concluded that this is what is driving temperatures to levels lower than that of background radiation
They further argue that this was the result of the central star having collided with a binary companion in the past, and were even able to deduce what the primary was like before this took place. The primary, they claim, was a Red Giant Branch (RGB) or early-RGB star – i.e. a star in the final phase of its life cycle – whose expansion caused its binary companion to be pulled in by its gravity.
The companion star would have eventually merged with its core, which caused the outflow of gas to begin. As Raghvendra Sahai explained in a NRAO press release:
“These new data show us that most of the stellar envelope from the massive red giant star has been blasted out into space at speeds far beyond the capabilities of a single, red giant star. The only way to eject so much mass and at such extreme speeds is from the gravitational energy of two interacting stars, which would explain the puzzling properties of the ultra-cold outflow.”
These findings were made possible thanks to the ALMA’s ability to provide precise measurements on the extent, age, mass and kinetic energy of the nebula. Also, in addition to measuring the rate of outflow, they gathered that it has been taking place for around 1050 to 1925 years. The findings also indicate that the Boomerang Nebula’s days as the coldest object in the known Universe may be numbered.
Looking forward, the red giant star in the center is expected to continue the process of becoming a planetary nebula – where stars shed their outer layers to form an expanding shell of gas. In this respect, it is expected to shrink and get hotter, which will warm up the nebula around it and make it brighter.
As Lars-Åke Nyman, an astronomer at the Joint ALMA Observatory in Santiago, Chile, and co-author on the paper, said:
“We see this remarkable object at a very special, very short-lived period of its life. It’s possible these super cosmic freezers are quite common in the universe, but they can only maintain such extreme temperatures for a relatively short time.”
These findings could also provide new insights into another cosmological mystery, which is how giant stars and their companions behave. When the larger star in these systems exists its main-sequence phase, it may consume its smaller companion and similarly become a “cosmic freezer”. Herein lies the value of objects like the Boomerang Nebula, which challenges conventional ideas about the interactions of binary systems.
It also demonstrates the value of next-generations instruments like ALMA. Given their superior optical capabilities and ability to obtain more high-resolution information, they can show us some never-before-seen things about our Universe, which can only challenge our preconceived notions of what is possible out there.
The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed some amazing things over the past few decades. Over the course of its many missions, this orbiting observatory has spotted things ranging from distant stars and galaxies to an expanding Universe. And today, twenty-six years later, it is still providing us with rare glimpses of the cosmos.
For example, just in time for the holidays, Hubble has released images of two rosy, glowing nebulas in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). These glowing clouds of gas and dust were spotted as part of a study known as the Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE), an effort to study this neighboring galaxy in an attempt to better understand our own.
The images were taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) in September 2015 and feature NGC 248 – two gaseous nebulas that were first observed by astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1834 and are situated in such a way as to appear as one. Measuring about 60 light years in length and 20 light-years in width, these nebulas are among a series of emission nebulas located in the neighboring dwarf satellite galaxy.
Emission nebulas are essentially large clouds of ionized gases that emit light of various colors – in this case, bright red. The color and luminosity of NGC 248 is due to the nebulas heavy hydrogen content, and the fact that they have young, brilliant stars at the center of them. These stars emit intense radiation that heats up the hydrogen gas, causing it to emit bright red light.
As noted, the images were taken as part of the SMIDGE study, an effort on behalf of astronomers to probe the Milky Way satellite – which is located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana – using the Hubble Space Telescope. The ultimate goal of this study is to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of the heavy elements needed to create it.
In the case of the SMC, it has between one-fifth and one-tenth the amount of heavy metals as the Milky Way. In addition, its proximity to the Milky Way makes it a convenient target for astronomers who are looking to better understand the history of the earlier Universe. Essentially, most star formation in the Milky Way happened at a time when the amount of heavy elements was much lower than it is now.
According to Dr. Karin Sandstrom, a professor from the University of California and the principle investigator of SMIDGE, studying the SMC’s can tell us much about neighboring galaxies, but also about the evolution of the Milky Way. “It is important for understanding the history of our own galaxy, too,” he said. “Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars.”
In addition to the stunning images, the SMIDGE team and the Space Telescope Science Institute have also produced a video that shows the location of NGC 248 in the southern sky. As you can see, the video begins with a ground-based view of the night sky (from the southern hemisphere) and then zooms in on the Small Magellanic Cloud, emphasizing the field where NGC 249 appears.
Check out the video below, and have yourselves a Merry Christmas and some Happy Holidays!