The Universe Delivers a Holiday Gift, Literally Wrapped with a Bow

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 25 2012 6:00 AM

Happy Holidays from the Whole Universe

I was wondering what to post for today; a short philosophical piece, a longer discussion of holidays and family, a pretty picture, or something quick and funny.

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!  

Then the Universe delivered unto me a picture perfect present: Behold!

The star Zeta Oph plowing through space.
The massive star Zeta Oph making waves. Click to enshockenate, or grab the 4,000 x 3,600 pixel image.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Trust me, you want to see this bigger! This is a Spitzer Space Telescope view of the star Zeta Ophiuchus (or Zeta Oph to its friends), a massive star plowing through the gas and dust floating in space. Zeta Oph is a bruiser, with 20 times the Sun’s mass. It’s an incredibly luminous star, blasting out light at a rate 80,000 times higher than the Sun! Even at its distance of 400 light years or so, it should be one of the brightest stars in the sky … yet it actually appears relatively dim to the eye.

That’s because it’s sitting in a dust cloud, dense opaque material that absorbs the light from the mighty star and diminishes it. However, infrared light can penetrate the murk, allowing us to peer into the cloud and see what’s going on.

Zeta Oph is blasting out a fierce wind of subatomic particles (think of it as a super-solar wind) that expands around the star. Not only that, but the star itself is moving rapidly through the dust at a speed of about 25 kilometers per second (15 miles per second), so it’s violently compressing the material ahead of it. This creates that wave structure, which is similar to the wave off the bow of a boat, though more like the supersonic shock wave generated as a fighter jet screams through the air.

That curving wave is roughly four light years long: That’s 40 trillion kilometers! The colors we see here represent different wavelengths of infrared light, well outside what the human eye can see, but are very clear to the Spitzer telescope, designed to see this flavor of light.

WISE view of Zeta Oph
Zeta Oph as seen by NASA's WISE spacecraft. Click to embiggen.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

I love this shot; if it had been released just a week earlier, I would’ve included it in my list of the Best Pictures of the Year! In fact, an image of it from WISE, another infrared ‘scope, did make my Top Pictures list in 2011.

This is one of my favorite objects of all time, so it was easy to decide to post it today. And c’mon: It’s red and green, and is literally wrapped in bow. How could I resist?

The Universe is simply amazing, and is the gift that keeps on giving. Enjoy your holidays, folks.

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