Astrophoto: The Red Rectangle in Space

Due to gravity, most objects in space are spherical — whether it’s round planets and stars or swirling spiral galaxies. That’s why this object, the Red Rectangle Nebula, or HD 44179, is so intriguing.

“The overall shape of the nebula is a puzzle for astronomers to figure out,” said astronomer Adam Block from the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter at the University of Arizona, via email. “The leading theory suggests that bipolar, cone-shaped, and periodic outflows, when viewed in profile as we do, may give the shape we see. The intense red color still remains a bit of a mystery.”

From most “smaller” ground based telescopes, this object really does look like a rectangle, but images from space, such as from the Hubble Space Telescope, reveal that rather than being rectangular, is shaped like an X with additional complex structures of spaced lines of glowing gas, a little like the rungs of a ladder. This stunning new image from Adam also captures these features.

He said he wanted to know what it really looked like from a ground-based telescope using full color (broad band) filters.

“I didn’t know, but now I do,” Adam said. “It is a tiny tiny thing; but it was wonderful to see it develop from the raw data to this rendered result. The central star is very bright and nearly overwhelms the interesting parts of the nebula. In addition to its size, the central star is a big challenge to tame.”

See a larger version and find out more of the observing details here.

‘Glowing Wreck Of A Star’ Reveals Cosmic Cannibalism

Circinus X-1 may look like a serene place from a distance, but in reality this gassy nebula is quite a busy spot. Embedded in the nebula is the neutron star that is also a leftover of the supernova that produced the gas. Not only that, but the neutron star is still locked on to a companion and is in fact “cannibalizing” it, astronomers said.

The “glowing wreck of a star”, as the team called it, is exciting because it demonstrates what systems look like in the first stages after an explosion. The nebula is an infant in cosmic terms, with an upper limit to its age of just 4,500 years. To put that in human terms, that’s around the time of the first civilizations (such as in Mesopotamia).

“The fact that we have this remnant along with the neutron star and its companion means we can test all kinds of things,” stated Sebastian Heinz, an astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who led the research.

“Our observations solve a number of puzzles both about this object and the way that neutron stars evolve after they are born. For example, the unusual elliptical orbit on which these two stars swing around each other is exactly what you would expect for a very young X-ray binary.”

X-ray binaries are typically made up of a black hole or a neutron star that is locked on to a “normal” companion star such as that of our sun. That star won’t stay normal forever, however, as it’s being subject to very intense gravity from the black hole or neutron star. Its starstuff is being pulled off, heated, and then emitting radiation in X-rays that are easily trackable across the universe.

While X-ray binaries have been spotted before, seeing one along with a nebula is something special. By comparison, the gas cloud doesn’t stick around for very long — just 100,000 years or so — while the stars can be there for a while longer.

Checking out this star system could not only teach scientists about stellar evolution, but about the nature of neutron stars. One thing puzzling the team right now is why the neutron star has a faint magnetic field, which stands against established theory. Further study will be required to figure out why it isn’t as strong as expected.

Combining observations done with ESO's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope, astronomers have uncovered the most powerful pair of jets ever seen from a stellar black hole. The black hole blows a huge bubble of hot gas, 1,000 light-years across or twice as large and tens of times more powerful than the other such microquasars. The stellar black hole belongs to a binary system as pictured in this artist's impression.  Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
A binary X-ray system with a black hole (right) and companion star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

This high-resolution view from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Telescope and the Australia Telescope Compact Array, however, has revealed some new things.

“I have been perplexed by the unusually strong evolution of the orbit of Circinus X-1 since my graduate-school days,” stated Niel Brandt, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University who is on the team. “The discovery now of this system’s youth provides a satisfying explanation for why its orbit evolves so strongly — because the system likely still is settling down after its violent birth.”

You can read more in the Dec. 4 publication in The Astrophysical Journal or, in prepublished form, on Arxiv.

Sources: University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pennsylvania State University

Little Big Universe: Tilt-Shifted Astro Images Make Space Look Tiny

Aww, how cute! What an adorable little… nebula?

Although here it may look like it could fit in your hand, the Horsehead Nebula is obviously quite a bit larger – about 1.5 light-years across from “nose” to “mane.” But given a tilt-shift effect by user ScienceLlama, the entire structure takes on the appearance of something tiny — based purely on our eyes’ natural depth-of-field when peering at a small object close up. Usually done with Photoshop filters these days, it’s a gimmick, yes… but it works!

The original image was captured in infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope and released in April 2013, in celebration of its 23rd anniversary.

Check out more of ScienceLlama’s “tiny universe” images below:

A tiny Centaurus A
A tiny Centaurus A
A tiny Crab Nebula (see original Spitzer image here)
A tiny Crab Nebula (see original NASA image here)
A tiny Andromeda Galaxy (see original here)
A tiny Andromeda Galaxy in hydrogen alpha (see original here)

See these and more on ScienceLlama’s Imgur page here, and follow Science Llama on Twitter here.

(H/T to Google+ user Brian Koberlein and fellow Space Community member Warren Isaac. Featured on

ADDITION 12/17: Several of these images (like this one) were originally processed by Robert Gendler from Hubble-acquired data, but the attribution was not noted by ScienceLlama. I apologize for the oversight — see more of Robert’s beautiful astrophotography on his website here. Another original source was Adam Block of the Mount Lemmon Sky Center.

Forging Stars – Peering Into Starbirth and Death

Some 160,000 light years away towards the constellation of Dorado (the Swordfish), is an amazing area of starbirth and death. Located in our celestial neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud, this huge stellar forge sculpts vast clouds of gas and dust into hot, new stars and carves out ribbons and curls of nebulae. However, in this image taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, there’s more. Stellar annihilation also awaits and shows itself as bright fibers left over from a supernova event.

For southern hemisphere observers, one of our nearest galactic neighbors, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is a well-known sight and holds many cosmic wonders. While the image highlights just a very small region, try to grasp the sheer size of what you are looking at. The fiery forge you see is several hundred light years across, and the factory in which it is contained spans 14,000 light years. Enormous? Yes. But compared to the Milky Way, it’s ten times smaller.

Even at such a great distance, the human eye can see many bright regions where new stars are actively forming, such as the Tarantula Nebula. This new image, taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, explores an area cataloged as NGC 2035 (right), sometimes nicknamed the Dragon’s Head Nebula. But, just what are we looking at?

The Dragon’s Head is an HII region, more commonly referred to as an emission nebula. Here, young stars pour forth energetic radiation and illuminate the surrounding clouds. The radiation tears electrons away from the atoms contained within the gas. These atoms then gel again with other atoms and release light. Swirling in the mix is dark dust, which absorbs the light and creates deep shadows and create contrast in the nebula’s structure.

However, as we look deep into this image, there’s even more… a fiery finale. At the left of the photo you’ll see the results of one of the most violent events in the Universe – a supernova explosion. These troubled tendrils are all that’s left of what once was a star and its name is SNR 0536-67.6. Perhaps when it exploded, it was so bright that it was capable of outshining the Magellanic Cloud… fading away over the weeks or months that followed. However, it left a lasting impression!

Original Story Source: ESO Image Release.

Virtual Star Party – October 20, 2013: In Space, Nobody can Hear You Waka-Waka-Waka-Waka!

Sunday’s Virtual Star Party felt like a reunion, with Mike Phillips, Gary Gonella, and Roy Salisbury supplying images and Scott Lewis co-hosting. We were joined by newcomer James McGee streaming a beautiful view of the Moon – when it wasn’t blocked by his apartment tower.

The Moon was just past full, so it commanded attention, but we still got a beautiful view of some fainter nebulae, galaxies and star clusters.

Astronomers: Mike Phillips, Gary Gonella, Roy Salisbury, James McGee

Hosts: Fraser Cain, Scott Lewis

Objects: The Moon, Pac Man Nebula, Eagle Nebula, Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy, M15 globular cluster, Dumbbell Nebula, Veil Nebula and more.

We hold the Virtual Star Party every Sunday night when it gets dark on the West Coast of North America. You can watch it live on Universe Today, on Google+, or from the Universe Today YouTube Channel.

Virtual Star Party – October 13, 2013

We’ve got a pretty bright Moon, but that just means we’ve got another target for the Virtual Star Party.

Tonight we had beautiful views of the Moon from David Dickinson and Cory Schmitz, and then some deep sky objects from Gary Gonella and Cory. We saw Andromeda Galaxy, Bubble Nebula, Swan Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Dumbbell Nebula. And some viewers shared their photographs, including some amazing images of the International Space Station.

Host: Fraser Cain

Astronomers: Cory Schmitz, Gary Gonella, David Dickinson

We hold the Virtual Star Party every Sunday night as a live Google+ Hangout on Air. We begin the show when it gets dark on the West Coast. If you want to get a notification, make sure you circle the Virtual Star Party on Google+. You can watch on our YouTube channel or here on Universe Today.

Weekly Space Hangout – September 27, 2013: Buran, Comet ISON, Water on Mars

Is it Friday already? Then it’s time for another Weekly Space Hangout. Join a team of dedicated space journalists to discuss the big space and astronomy news stories that broke this week. This time around, we discussed Amy Shira Teitel’s Buran article, ISON Watch 2013, and the re-re-discovery of water on Mars.

Host: Fraser Cain

Journalists: Amy Shira Teitel, David Dickinson, Jason Major, Dr. Nicole Gugliucci, and Scott Lewis.

And here are the stories we covered:

The Life and Death of Buran
Comet ISON Viewing Guide
Water on Mars
Split Personality Pulsar
Asteroid Was Actually Space Junk
Cat’s Paw Nebula in APEX
Spitzer for Exoplanets
Mindblowing Spaceship Chart

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern, 2000 GMT. You can watch from here on Universe Today, or over on Google+ or YouTube.

Amazing Astrophoto: The North American Nebula by Mick Hyde

Here’s a truly gorgeous image by astrophotographer Mick Hyde, a mosaic of NGC 7000 (the North American nebula) and the Pelican nebula (IC 5070).

The structure on the upper left side is the North American nebula, with the darkest lobe of dust near the center forming the “Gulf of Mexico.” The star-forming region is located approximately 1,600 light years away in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan.

On the upper right is another celestial water bird, the Pelican nebula, a bright curve of ionized gas suggesting the shape of a pelican’s head and neck.

Check out a wider view of this region here, and see this and more of Mick’s work on his Flickr page here.

Image © Mick Hyde. Used with permission.

An Amazing Anniversary Image from the VLT

This Saturday will mark 15 years that the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) first opened its eyes on the Universe, and ESO is celebrating its first-light anniversary with a beautiful and intriguing new image of the stellar nursery IC 2944, full of bright young stars and ink-black clouds of cold interstellar dust.

This is the clearest ground-based image yet of IC 2944, located 6,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus.

Emission nebulae like IC 2944 are composed mostly of hydrogen gas that glows in a distinctive shade of red, due to the intense radiation from the many brilliant newborn stars. Clearly revealed against this bright backdrop are mysterious dark clots of opaque dust, cold clouds known as Bok globules. They are named after Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok, who first drew attention to them in the 1940s as possible sites of star formation. This particular set is nicknamed the Thackeray Globules.

Larger Bok globules in quieter locations often collapse to form new stars but the ones in this picture are under fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation from nearby hot young stars. They are both being eroded away and also fragmenting, like lumps of butter dropped into a hot frying pan. It is likely that Thackeray’s Globules will be destroyed before they can collapse and form stars.

This new picture celebrates an important anniversary for the the VLT – it will be fifteen years since first light on the first of its four Unit Telescopes on May 25, 1998. Since then the four original giant telescopes have been joined by the four small Auxiliary Telescopes that form part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) – one of the most powerful and productive ground-based astronomical facilities in existence.

The selection of images below — one per year — gives a taste of the VLT’s scientific productivity since first light in 1998:

A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT
A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT (Credits: ESO/P.D. Barthel/M. McCaughrean/M. Andersen/S. Gillessen et al./Y. Beletsky/R. Chini/T. Preibisch)

Read more on the ESO site here, and watch an ESOCast video below honoring the VLT’s fifteen-year milestone:

Happy Anniversary VLT!

Source: ESO