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!
Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 16 open star cluster – aka. The Eagle Nebula (and a slew of other names). Enjoy!
In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.
One of these objects it he Eagle Nebula (aka. NGC 661. The Star Queen Nebula and The Spire), a young open cluster of stars located in the Serpens constellation. The names “Eagle” and “Star Queen” refer to visual impressions of the dark silhouette near the center of the nebula. The nebula contains several active star-forming gas and dust regions, which includes the now-famous “Pillars of Creation“.
Located some 7,000 light years away in the next inner spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, the Eagle Nebula spans some 70 by 50 light years across. Born around 5.5 million years ago, this glittering swarm marks an area about 15 light years wide, and within the heart of this nebula is a cluster of stars and a region that has captured our imaginations like nothing else – the “Pillars of Creation”.
Here, star formation is going on. The dust clouds are illuminated by emission light, where high-energy radiation from its massive and hot young stars excited the particles of gas and makes them glow. Inside the pillars are Evaporating Gaseous Globules (EGGs), concentrations of gas that are emerging from the “womb” that about to become stars.
These pockets of interstellar gas are dense enough to collapse under their own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow as they accumulate more and more mass from their surroundings. As their place of birth contracts gravitationally, the interior gas reaches its end and the intense radiation of bright young stars causes low density material to boil away.
These regions were first photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. As Jeff Hester – a professor at Arizona State University and an investigator with the Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) – said of the discovery:
“For a long time astronomers have speculated about what processes control the sizes of stars – about why stars are the sizes that they are. Now in M16 we seem to be watching at least one such process at work right in front of our eyes.”
The Hubble has shown us what happens when all the gas boils away and only the EGGs are left. “It’s a bit like a wind storm in the desert,” said Hester. “As the wind blows away the lighter sand, heavier rocks buried in the sand are uncovered. But in M16, instead of rocks, the ultraviolet light is uncovering the denser egg-like globules of gas that surround stars that were forming inside the gigantic gas columns.”
And some of these EGGs are nothing more than what would appear to be tiny bumps and teardrops in space – but at least we are looking back in time to see what stars look like when they were first born. “This is the first time that we have actually seen the process of forming stars being uncovered by photoevaporation,” Hester emphasized. “In some ways it seems more like archaeology than astronomy. The ultraviolet light from nearby stars does the digging for us, and we study what is unearthed.”
History of Observation:
The star cluster associated with M16 (NGC 6611) was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745-6. However, it was Charles Messier who was the very first to see the nebulosity associated with it. As he recorded in his notes:
“In the same night of June 3 to 4, 1764, I have discovered a cluster of small stars, mixed with a faint light, near the tail of Serpens, at little distance from the parallel of the star Zeta of that constellation: this cluster may have 8 minutes of arc in extension: with a weak refractor, these stars appear in the form of a nebula; but when employing a good instrument one distinguishes these stars, and one remarks in addition a nebulosity which contains three of these stars. I have determined the position of the middle of this cluster; its right ascension was 271d 15′ 3″, and its declination 13d 51′ 44″ south.”
Oddly enough, Sir William Herschel, who was famous for elaborating on Messier’s observations, didn’t seem to notice the nebula at all (according to his notes). And Admiral Smyth, who could always be counted on for flowery prose about stellar objects, just barely saw it as well:
“A scattered but fine large stellar cluster, on the nombril of Sobieski’s shield, in the Galaxy, discovered by Messier in 1764, and registered as a mass of small stars in the midst of a faint light. As the stars are disposed in numerous pairs among the evanescent points of more minute components, it forms a very pretty object in a telescope of tolerable capacity.”
But of course, the nebula isn’t an easy object to spot and its visibility on any given night depends greatly on sky conditions. As historical evidence suggest, only one of the two masters (Messier) caught it. So take a lesson from history and return to the sky many times. One day you’ll be rewarded!
Locating Messier 16:
One of the easiest ways to find M16 is to identify the constellation of Aquila and begin tracing the stars down the eagle’s back to Lambda. When you reach that point, continue to extend the line through to Alpha Scuti, then southwards towards Gamma Scuti. Aim your binoculars or image correct finderscope at Gamma and put it in the 7:00 position.
For those using a finderscope, M16 will easily show up as a faint haze. Even those using binoculars won’t miss it. If Gamma is in the lower left hand corner of your vision – then M16 is in the upper right hand. For all optics, you won’t be able to miss the open star cluster and the faint nebulosity of IC 4703 can be seen from dark sky locations.
Another way to find M16 is by first locating the “Teapot” asterism in Sagittarius constellation (see above), and then by following the line from the star Kaus Australis (Epsilon Sagittarii) – the brightest star in Sagittarius – to just east of Kaus Media (Delta Sagittarii). Another way to find the nebula is by extending a line from Lambda Scuti in Scutum constellation to Alpha Scuti, and then to the south to Gamma Scuti.
Those using large aperture telescopes will be able to see the nebula well, but sky conditions are everything when it comes to this one. The star cluster which is truly M16 will always be easy, but the nebula is a challenge.
And as always, here are the quick facts on M16 to help you get started:
Object Name: Messier 16 Alternative Designations: M16, NGC 6611, Eagle Nebula (IC 4703) Object Type: Open Star Cluster and Emission Nebula Constellation: Serpens (Cauda) Right Ascension: 18 : 18.8 (h:m) Declination: -13 : 47 (deg:m) Distance: 7.0 (kly) Visual Brightness: 6.4 (mag) Apparent Dimension: 7.0 (arc min)
And be sure to enjoy this video of the Eagle Nebula and the amazing photographs of the “Pillar of Creation”:
A nebula is a truly wondrous thing to behold. Named after the Latin word for “cloud”, nebulae are not only massive clouds of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma; they are also often “stellar nurseries” – i.e. the place where stars are born. And for centuries, distant galaxies were often mistaken for these massive clouds.
Alas, such descriptions barely scratch the surface of what nebulae are and what there significance is. Between their formation process, their role in stellar and planetary formation, and their diversity, nebulae have provided humanity with endless intrigue and discovery.