Mysterious Ring When Star Dies

Aug 10, 2004
This false-color image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows a dying star (center) surrounded by a cloud of glowing gas and

A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the shimmering embers of a dying star, and in their midst a mysterious doughnut-shaped ring.

"Spitzer's infrared vision has revealed what could not be seen before - a massive ring of material that was expelled from the dying star," said Dr. Joseph Hora, a Spitzer scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. "The composition of the ring and how it formed are mysteries we hope to address with further Spitzer studies."

The dying star is part of a "planetary nebula" called NGC 246. When a star like our own Sun begins to run out of fuel, its core shrinks and heats up, boiling off the star's outer layers. Leftover material shoots outward, expanding in shells around the star. This ejected material is then bombarded with ultraviolet light from the central star's fiery surface, producing huge, glowing clouds - planetary nebulas - that look like giant jellyfish in space.

These cosmic beauties last a relatively brief time, about a few thousand years, in the approximately 10-billion-year lifetime of a star. The name "planetary nebula" came from early astronomers who thought the rounded clouds looked like planets.

NGC 246 is located 1,800 light-years away in the Cetus constellation of our galaxy. Previous observations of this object by visible-light telescopes showed a glistening orb of gas and dust surrounding a central, compact star.

By cutting through the envelope of dust with its infrared eyes, Spitzer provides a more transparent view through and behind the nebula. "What we have seen with Spitzer is totally unexpected," said Hora. "Although previous observations showed the nebula had a patchy appearance, Spitzer has revealed a ring component of this dying star, possibly consisting of hydrogen molecules."

In the new false-color picture, the ring appears clumpy and red and off-center from the central star, while fluorescent, or ionized, gases are green. The central star is the left white spot in the middle of the cloud.

Ultimately, these data will help astronomers better understand how planetary nebulas take shape, and how they nourish new generations of stars. A scientific paper on this and other planetary nebulas observed by Spitzer will be published on Sept. 1 in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement, along with 75 other papers reporting Spitzer early mission results.

Launched August 25, 2003, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth of NASA's Great Observatories, a program that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Spitzer is also part of NASA's Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone?

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is a division of Caltech. Spitzer's infrared array camera, which took the new picture of NGC 246, was built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The camera's development was led by Dr. Giovanni Fazio of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at http ://www.spitzer.caltech.edu.

Source: NASA

Explore further: Possible bright supernova lights up spiral galaxy M61

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Image: Galactic wheel of life shines in infrared

Oct 24, 2014

It might look like a spoked wheel or even a "Chakram" weapon wielded by warriors like "Xena," from the fictional TV show, but this ringed galaxy is actually a vast place of stellar life. A newly released ...

Slow-growing galaxies offer window to early universe

Oct 16, 2014

What makes one rose bush blossom with flowers, while another remains barren? Astronomers ask a similar question of galaxies, wondering how some flourish with star formation and others barely bloom.

Chandra's archives come to life

Oct 22, 2014

Every year, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory looks at hundreds of objects throughout space to help expand our understanding of the Universe. Ultimately, these data are stored in the Chandra Data Archive, ...

New milestone in the search for water on distant planets

Sep 24, 2014

Astronomers have found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet about four times bigger than Earth, in the constellation Cygnus about 124 light years - or nearly 729 trillion miles - from our home planet. ...

Spitzer telescope witnesses asteroid smashup

Aug 28, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted an eruption of dust around a young star, possibly the result of a smashup between large asteroids. This type of collision can eventually lead to the ...

Recommended for you

Possible bright supernova lights up spiral galaxy M61

7 minutes ago

I sat straight up in my seat when I learned of the discovery of a possible new supernova in the bright Virgo galaxy M61. Since bright usually means close, this newly exploding star may soon become visible ...

Fifteen years of NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory

52 minutes ago

This Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the Hydra A galaxy cluster was taken on Oct. 30, 1999, with the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) in an observation that lasted about six hours.

Confirming a 3-D structural view of a quasar outflow

1 hour ago

A team of astronomers have observed a distant gravitationally-lensed quasar (i.e., an active galactic nucleus) with the Subaru Telescope and concluded that the data indeed present a 3-D view of the structure ...

Hubble sees 'ghost light' from dead galaxies

16 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has picked up the faint, ghostly glow of stars ejected from ancient galaxies that were gravitationally ripped apart several billion years ago. The mayhem happened ...

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

16 hours ago

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.