Rare Cosmic Laser Show Reveals Details of Binary Star System

first_imgStay on target NASA Says 2 Asteroids Will Safely Fly By Earth This WeekendScientists Discover Possible Interstellar Visitor Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.center_img Astronomers observed a rare laser emission that indicates a double star system is hidden inside the Ant Nebula.The phenomenon is connected to the death of a star, and was discovered by the European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory.When low- to medium-weight stars like our Sun approach end of life, they cast out layers of gas and dust into space, creating a “kaleidoscope of intricate patterns” known as a planetary nebula.(Fun fact: The term is a misnomer that originated in the 1780s with astronomer William Herschel who, while viewing an emission nebula through his telescope, mistook the glowing shells of ionized gas for planets.)That’s what’s happening to the Ant Nebula—but with added fireworks.“The infrared Herschel observations have shown that the dramatic demise of the central star in the core of the Ant Nebula is even more theatrical than implied by its colorful appearance in visible images,” according to ESA.To most Earthlings, lasers typically conjure Mission: Impossible-esque security grids, music festival light shows, or a really funny way to mess with your cat. But in space, focused emissions are few and far between.Astronomer Donald Menzel (after whom the “Menzel 3” Ant Nebula is named) was one of the first to suggest that natural light amplification by stimulated emission of radar (laser) could occur in gaseous nebulae.“When we observe Menzel 3, we see an amazingly intricate structure made up of ionized gas, but we cannot see the object in its center producing this pattern,” lead study author Isabel Aleman said in a statement.“Thanks to the sensitivity and wide wavelength range of the Herschel observatory,” she continued, “we detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination line laser emission, which provided a way to reveal the nebula’s structure and physical conditions.”Which, as described by ESA, include gas 10,000 times denser than a typical planetary nebula—and a possible second star.Ordinarily, the region “close” to the dead star (the distance between Saturn and the Sun) is empty; most material is ejected outwards, and any lingering gas would fall back in.The only way to keep gas close to the star is if it orbits around it in a disc.“In this case, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very center that is seen approximately edge-on,” co-author Albert Zijlstra said. “This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal.“The disc suggests the white dwarf has a binary companion,” he explained. “Because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction.”While the elusive partner star has not yet been spotted, this study provides evidence that the Ant Nebula was created by the “complex nature” of a binary star system.“Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before,” Toshiya Ueta, principal investigator of the Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey project, said. “This was a remarkable discovery that we did not anticipate. There is certainly more to stellar nebula than meets the eye.”last_img

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