NASA solves 16-year-old ‘missing link’ mystery of Blue Ring Nebula

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Astronomers at US-based space agency NASA can finally explain how the strange fluorescent debris of the Blue Ring Nebula first formed. The Blue Ring Nebula has a bright star called TYC 2597-735-1 sitting at its centre, and surrounding this is an unusual ultraviolet ring first spied in 2004 using NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) space telescope.

However, this puzzling ring — which is actually invisible ultraviolet light until colour-coded blue in the altered images — has until now remained a mystery.

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I … love how unique this object is, and the effort that so many people put in to figure it out

Dr Mark Seibert

Dr Mark Seibert, of the Carnegie Institution for Science and the study’s co-author, said: “Every time we thought we had this thing figured out, something would tell us, ‘No, that’s not right’.

“That’s a scary thing as a scientist. But I also love how unique this object is, and the effort that so many people put in to figure it out.”

Researchers discovered the blue ring is actually the base of a cone-shaped cloud of glowing molecular hydrogen stretching away from the central star, toward Earth.

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The Blue Ring Nebula consists of two expanding cones of gas ejected into space by a stellar merger (Image: Caltech/M. Seibert (Carnegie Institution for Science)/K. Hoadley (Caltech)/GALEX Team)

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The Blue Ring Nebula consists of two hollow, cone-shaped clouds of debris moving in opposite directions (Image: Mark Seibert)

The new observations, made using Hawaii’s W M Keck Observatory, also reveal a second cone-shaped cloud extending in the opposite direction.

It is the bases of the cone-shaped clouds appearing to overlap from our planet’s perspective, that are responsible for creating the illusionary ring shape surrounding the star.

NASA scientists now suspect the clouds of fluorescent debris formed after a star resembling our Sun consumed a smaller stellar companion only a few thousand years ago.

The resulting observations captured by NASA have documented an evolutionary phase of a stellar collision never-before witnessed by human eyes.

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NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope revealed an excess of infrared emissions (Image: NASA)

Caltesch’s Dr Keri Hoadley, the study’s lead author, said: ”The merging of two stars is fairly common, but they quickly become obscured by lots of dust as the ejecta from them expands and cools in space, which means we can’t see what has actually happened.”

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She added how the timing of the new observations proved crucial to unravel the cosmic phenomenon.

Dr Hoadley said: ”We think this object represents a late stage of these transient events, when the dust finally clears and we have a good view.

“But we also caught the process before it was too far along; after time, the nebula will dissolve into the interstellar medium, and we would not be able to tell anything happened at all.”

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Don Neill, an astrophysicist at Caltech involving with gathering the original data, added: ”It’s like catching sight of a baby when it first walks. If you blink, you might miss it.”

The stellar collision spewed almost unimaginable quantities hot debris into deep space.

And as the debris blasted out, they triggered a shock wave so violent it super-heated hydrogen molecules in the debris cloud, producing the ultraviolet emissions observed in 2004.

The researchers also used archived data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in conjunction with the Wide-field Survey Explorer.

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NASA’s Wide-field Survey Explorer was involved in the study (Image: NASA)

Working in tandem, these revealed an excess of infrared emissions around the central star of the Blue Ring Nebula.

These observations suggest the star is surrounded by a disk of dust working to absorb the star’s light before this is reradiates in the infrared spectrum.

The NASA analysts now suggest this disk cut the debris cloud surrounding the star in half, creating the two cone-shaped clouds seen to extend in polar directions.


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