WISE image reveals strange specimen in starry sea

Nov 17, 2010
This image composite shows two views of a puffy, dying star, or planetary nebula, known as NGC 1514. The view on the left is from a ground-based, visible-light telescope; the view on the right shows the object in infrared light, as seen by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows what looks like a glowing jellyfish floating at the bottom of a dark, speckled sea. In reality, this critter belongs to the cosmos -- it's a dying star surrounded by fluorescing gas and two very unusual rings.

"I am reminded of the jellyfish exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- beautiful things floating in water, except this one is in space," said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of the WISE mission at UCLA, and a co-author of a paper on the findings, reported in the .

The object, known as NGC 1514 and sometimes the "Crystal Ball" nebula, belongs to a class of objects called planetary nebulae, which form when dying stars toss off their outer layers of material. Ultraviolet light from a central star, or in this case a pair of stars, causes the gas to fluoresce with colorful light. The result is often beautiful -- these objects have been referred to as the butterflies of space.

NGC 1514 was discovered in 1790 by Sir William Herschel, who noted that its "shining fluid" meant that it could not be a faint cluster of stars, as originally suspected. Herschel had previously coined the term planetary nebulae to describe similar objects with circular, planet-like shapes.

Planetary nebulae with asymmetrical wings of nebulosity are common. But nothing like the newfound rings around NGC 1514 had been seen before. Astronomers say the rings are made of dust ejected by the dying pair of stars at the center of NGC 1514. This burst of dust collided with the walls of a cavity that was already cleared out by , forming the rings.

"I just happened to look up one of my favorite objects in our WISE catalogue and was shocked to see these odd rings," said Michael Ressler, a member of the WISE science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and lead author of the Astronomical Journal paper. Ressler first became acquainted with the object years ago while playing around with his amateur telescope on a desert camping trip. "It's funny how things come around full circle like this."

WISE was able to spot the rings for the first time because their dust is being heated and glows with the infrared light that WISE can detect. In visible-light images, the rings are hidden from view, overwhelmed by the brightly fluorescing clouds of gas.

"This object has been studied for more than 200 years, but WISE shows us it still has surprises," said Ressler.

Infrared light has been color-coded in the new WISE picture, such that blue represents light with a wavelength of 3.4 microns; turquoise is 4.6-micron light; green is 12-micron light; and red is 22-micron light. The dust rings stand out in orange. The greenish glow at the center is an inner shell of material, blown out more recently than an outer shell that is too faint to be seen in WISE's infrared view. The white dot in the middle is the central pair of stars, which are too close together for WISE to see separately.

Ressler says NGC 1514's structure, though it looks unique, is probably similar in overall geometry to other hour-glass nebulae, such as the Engraved Hourglass Nebula. The structure looks different in WISE's view because the rings are detectable only by their heat; they do not fluoresce at visible wavelengths, as do the rings in the other objects.

Serendipitous findings like this one are common in survey missions like WISE, which comb through the whole sky. WISE has been surveying the sky in infrared light since January 2010, cataloguing hundreds of millions of asteroids, stars and galaxies. In late September, after covering the sky about one-and-a-half times, it ran out of the frozen coolant needed to chill its longest-wavelength detectors. The mission, now called NEOWISE, is still scanning the skies with two of its infrared detectors, focusing primarily on comets and asteroids, including near-Earth objects, which are bodies whose orbits pass relatively close to Earth's orbit around the sun.

The WISE science team says that more oddballs like NGC 1514 are sure to turn up in the plethora of WISE data -- the first batch of which will be released to the astronomical community in spring 2011.

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User comments : 11

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joefarah
5 / 5 (1) Nov 17, 2010
What is amazing to me is that the two rings are positioned perfectly symmetrically from the perspective of earth - like someone is trying to catch our attention.
Ravenrant
5 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2010
Not that amazing. The ends of the bar in the middle are the magnetic poles. What appears to be the rings is a spherical shell of gas which forms the rings because at the edges of the sphere you are looking through more gas so they appear brighter. Same with the middle bar, the magnetic field concentrates the gas at the poles.

This is why it isn't that unlikely to see it. It will look about the same from any direction except for 2. If either pole were pointed at us it would look like a bullseye instead, and I think there are pictures of those too.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2010
@Ravenrant-

"The ends of the bar in the middle are the magnetic poles. What appears to be the rings is a spherical shell of gas which forms the rings because at the edges of the sphere you are looking through more gas so they appear brighter. Same with the middle bar, the magnetic field concentrates the gas at the poles."

I'm not sure what info you're referencing wrt magnetic poles and such in NGC 1514(do you have refs?). There is no bar in the middle of the nebula. You are seeing two coplanar rings that are tilted to our line of sight and appear to form a bar across the center of NGC 1514. The central 'star' is actually a binary and the shapes of the surrounding nebula derives from an earlier 'common envelope' phase combined with uneven mass transfer between stars and colliding stellar winds. Dr. Phil Plait has a good description of what the WISE image reveals: http://blogs.disc...ry-star/
con't
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2010
It is thought that the binarity of the central stars in some planetary nebulae are responsible for these strongly modified and distorted 'bipolar' segments. As the primary star progressed through its' AGB phase, a common envelope binary was formed and interacting stellar winds and episodic mass transfer sculpted the ejected material in the young planetary nebulae. A kinematic study of NGC 1514 by Muthu et al has further details of the structure and evolution of this planetary: http://iopscience....web.pdf
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Nov 18, 2010
An preprint of the paper by Ressler et al has been posted over at arXiv: http://arxiv.org/...77v1.pdf

Note - Fig. 10 of the paper has a series of narrowband, broadband, infrared and radio images of NGC 1514 with their double ring model superimposed for comparison. They find their observations are consistent with the colliding winds model presented in the 2003 Muthu paper (see previous link).
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Nov 18, 2010
Even I had to check that one YYZ, very impressive knowledge and recall you have there.
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
SH, didn't you mention elsewhere that you owned an 8" Schmidt-Cass telescope? I first scooped up this object with an 8" Celestron(my first 'real' scope) back in high school. The unusually bright central star actually helps to pick it out in a low power field. Of course, once located, bump up the magnification to get a better look at the bluish-green nebulosity (and tame the glare of the central star somewhat). An OIII filter also works well with this planetary. NGC 1514 is rising in the eastern sky after sunset this time of year (for mid-northern latitudes), but this object is probably in your scopes' database already. This is a really nice object for 4-10" scopes and lead author Ressler mentions an earlier visual sighting in his "amateur telescope".

Perhaps if we cross paths at Stellafane one of these years we could commandeer one of the large Dobsonians and take a peek (it's ab-fab in 20"+ scopes).
Skultch
5 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
I have an 18" Dobsonian and I live at 11,200 ft elevation in the middle of a Colorado national forest. You can barely see the glare from Denver and it's 3 mtn ranges away. I'd be up for throwing my first star party.
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2010
For visual deep-sky afficionados there is no substitute for aperture and dark transparent skies and it sounds like you have an abundance of both, Skultch. In earlier years I have been fortunate enough to rack up some observing time in all the 4-corner states, so I'm familiar with what those pristine western skies have to offer. For health reasons I probably won't be traveling much in the next few months (gonna have to miss this year's Florida Star Party in the Keys). But I still have a few Arp objects and a dozen M 31 globular clusters on my 'get' list, among other projects, so I penciled your info in my observing log for future reference and may get back with you in the coming year. Man...a foot-and-a-half of glass in the Colorado Rockies. I'd be totally nocturnal by now!

Clear skies
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Nov 19, 2010
SH, didn't you mention elsewhere that you owned an 8" Schmidt-Cass telescope?
Yes, and I couldn't live without it to be honest.
Perhaps if we cross paths at Stellafane one of these years we could commandeer one of the large Dobsonians and take a peek (it's ab-fab in 20"+ scopes).
I'd be up for it for certain.
I have an 18" Dobsonian and I live at 11,200 ft elevation in the middle of a Colorado national forest. You can barely see the glare from Denver and it's 3 mtn ranges away. I'd be up for throwing my first star party.
If it's in CO, I'm certainly up for it. Provided the TSA doesn't try to touch my scope(HA).
Skultch
not rated yet Nov 22, 2010
If it's in CO, I'm certainly up for it. Provided the TSA doesn't try to touch my scope(HA).


lol I'm still very new to amateur astronomy. I might get way more into it now as my bad back seems to be forcing me out of my snowboarding obsession. To be honest, it's my brother's scope, he has no space for it and it's been at my place for years now. So, it's mine now. :)