Astrophoto: The Red Rectangle in Space

The Red Rectangle Nebula. Credit and copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

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.