Frankenstein nebula

The entire universe in blog form
March 4 2008 9:17 AM

Frankenstein nebula

Planetary nebulae are too cool.

When a star like the Sun dies, it goes through a series of episodes where it blows off dense winds, vast volumes of gas which expand out from the star in exotic shapes. This is caused by paroxysms in the star's core; at its advanced age, fusion of one element into another is unstable, and sometimes huge amounts of energy are suddenly dumped into the star's outer layers. These outer layers respond by swelling and shrinking, and this in turn is reflected in the winds the star blows.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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NGC 2371, seen here in a new Hubble Space Telescope picture, is just such a nebula. The winds from the star have slammed into each other, creating the odd puffy shape. As the star sheds its overcoat of material, the hot, dense core is exposed -- you can see it as the pinkish-white dot in the center. That color isn't real; in fact the star, now called a white dwarf, would be bluish or intensely white. But it's hot, no doubt: it's over 130,000 degrees Celsius -- and that's not even the hottest one known, which is well over 200,000 degrees!

At that temperature, the star floods the gas with ultraviolet light, which ionizes the material and makes it glow in the same way as a neon sign. In this particular image, sulfur and nitrogen glow red, hydrogen is green, and oxygen is blue. The colors aren't real; they were just chosen for aesthetics. In general, hydrogen is reddish and oxygen is green.

I was intrigued by the two pink stubs you can in the nebula, on opposite sides of the central star. Those are called FLIERs, for Fast Low-Ionization Emission Regions (I have details on what they are at that link). Their exact formation mechanism isn't well-understood, but they always appear like that, on opposite sides of the star, so some symmetric shaping force is at work.

I had to laugh when I saw them; they looked like the electrical studs in the neck of the classic Frankenstein's monster. Too bad I don't get to name nebulae! I guess, though, after a second look the studs are too high. They look like ears, maybe, or antennae. There was a robot in an old movie or a book cover; I can't remember, but it had little antennae sticking out of its head just like this. Anyone remember what I'm talking about? Stuff like that makes me crazy when I can't remember it. Like an itch you can't scratch.

Anyway, if you like planetary nebulae, then search the blog here for more; I've written about them quite bit, since I studied them for both my Masters and PhD. The Hubble website has dozens and dozens of them, too.

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