A curiosity in space: a "Blue Marble" look-alike

From the “watch the skies” department, and ESO, comes this “Blue Marble” look-alike, hence the name, The Planetary Nebula:.

The ghost of a dying star

ESO-378-1

The Planetary Nebula:This extraordinary bubble, glowing like the ghost of a star in the haunting darkness of space, may appear supernatural and mysterious, but it is a familiar astronomical object: a planetary nebula, the remnants of a dying star. This is the best view of the little-known object ESO 378-1 yet obtained and was captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope in northern Chile. CREDIT ESO

This extraordinary bubble, glowing like the ghost of a star in the haunting darkness of space, may appear supernatural and mysterious, but it is a familiar astronomical object: a planetary nebula, the remnants of a dying star. This is the best view of the little-known object ESO 378-1 yet obtained and was captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope in northern Chile.

Nicknamed the Southern Owl Nebula, this shimmering orb is a planetary nebula with a diameter of almost four light-years. Its informal name relates to its visual cousin in the northern hemisphere, the Owl Nebula. ESO 378-1 [1], which is also catalogued as PN K 1-22 and PN G283.6+25.3, is located in the constellation of Hydra (The Female Water Snake).

Like all planetary nebulae, ESO 378-1 is a relatively short-lived phenomenon, lasting only a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a typical stellar lifetime of several billion years [2].

Planetary nebulae are created by the ejected and expanding gas of dying stars. Although they are brilliant and intriguing objects in the initial stages of formation, these bubbles fade away as their constituent gas moves away and the central stars grow dimmer.

For a planetary nebula to form, the aging star must have a mass less than about eight times that of the Sun. Stars that are heavier than this limit will end their lives in dramatic fashion as supernova.

As these less massive stars grow old they start to lose their outer layers of gas to stellar winds. After most of these outer layers have dissipated, the remaining hot stellar core starts to emit ultraviolet radiation which then ionises the surrounding gas. This ionisation causes the expanding shell of ghostly gas to begin to glow in bright colours.

After the planetary nebula has faded away, the leftover stellar remnant will burn for another billion years before consuming all its remaining fuel. It will then become a tiny – but hot and very dense – white dwarf that will slowly cool over billions of years. The Sun will produce a planetary nebula several billion years in the future and will afterwards also spend its twilight years as a white dwarf.

Planetary nebulae play a crucial role in the chemical enrichment and evolution of the Universe. Elements such as carbon and nitrogen, as well as some other heavier elements, are created in these stars and returned to the interstellar medium. Out of this material new stars, planets and eventually life can form. Hence astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous phrase: “We are made of star stuff.”

This picture comes from the ESO Cosmic Gems programme, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes for the purposes of education and public outreach. The programme makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO’s science archive.

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Notes

[1] The ESO in the name of this object refers to a catalogue of objects compiled in the 1970s and 80s from careful inspection of new photographs taken with the ESO 1-metre Schmidt telescope at La Silla.

[2] The lifetime of a planetary nebula as a fraction of a star’s life is about the same as the life of a soap bubble compared to the age of the child who blows it.

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67 thoughts on “A curiosity in space: a "Blue Marble" look-alike

  1. What would happen if one if these were to impact our solar system?
    At what distance would the cloud of material have dissipated enough so that it would have minimal effects on us?
    Give the occurrence of nova and star death, could these be a cause of extinction events on Earth?
    For stars closer to the center of the galaxy, how often would they get hit by one of these, and is this a reason why we don’t see signs of intelligent life (most stars might be in too rough of a neighborhood)?

    • We don’t see signs of intelligent life, because we have only just now found extrasolar Earth like planets, and they are far too far away for us to communicate with any beings who might be there. Also it might be there isn’t any life anywhere else.
      I not sure what the answers are to your other questions. I think have an idea, but I not sure so I’ll leave those to others.

      • Having spent a considerable time on this planet I’m still looking for signs of intelligent life….not much so far !!

      • Intelligent life would have a communication system based upon quantum entanglement. You have some electrons that are quantum entangled with some paired electrons 100 light years away. Any change you make to your electrons is immediately apparent 100 light years away in the other electrons, and so you have faster than light communication for real-time intergalatic conversation.
        The point is, that in the greater universe only primitive barbarians would still be using electro-magnetic communication systems.
        Ralph

      • I’ve no doubt that they’re out there, or that they’re just as dumb there as they are here.

      • Even without quantum entanglement, ultra-wide-band (effectively using short photon bursts, with the data in the timing, no carrier wave) is possible today on Earth, and almost undetectable a few meters away unless you have a suitably tuned receiver. Add heavily compressed data, heavily multiplexed, over such a system, and detecting it even on the same planet is a non-starter. But somehow SETI expect aliens to use massive transmitters with 20th century technology. I don’t think so…

    • No worries. The closest stars, in the Alpha Centauri system, are more than four light years away, so even if they formed planetary nebulae four light years in diameter, their constituent elements would only reach halfway to us while glowing.
      One of the stars in the binary Alpha Centauri system is a little bigger than the sun and the other a little less. There is also a nearby red dwarf, Proxima Centauri, which lies a bit closer to the solar system.
      Other factors make the galactic center inhospitable than clouds of matter.

    • Thanks Anthony.
      A very pretty distraction from the grind of climate change insanity.
      G
      As for one of these things ” impacting our solar system “; This is 4 light years diameter; closest star other than old sol is 4.3 light years away, so would have to grow to double the bubble size; that would be quite a bauble.
      But as far as I know, they don’t move like comets, so I doubt there is one coming our way.
      So nyet on getting bowled by a bubble.
      I don’t cogitate on what can’t happen; specially that we have no control over.
      g

    • I’m not sure at what distance the cloud of material would have to dissipate to have no effect on earth. . . but I can tell you that if the cloud pictured was to engulf the earth, and if the entire star the size of the sun had contributed to the cloud — the amount of cloud material found in a volume of space equal to the sun would be. . . about 160 pounds.
      So, probably not a problem. . .

      • Uh, that should be material found in a volume of space equal to that of the earth would be about 160 pounds. . .

    • This is a very tenuous gas shell. It would likely pass right by with little if any affect. At that diameter anyway.
      A Coronal Mass Ejection may be many orders of magnitude denser and be moving hundreds of times faster than a planetary nebula that is this wide.
      By the time a PN has reached one light year in diameter, it may be only a few hundred to a few thousand particles per cubic centimeter. Or less.
      And they move slowly…a few km/sec when they leave the star that formed them.
      CMEs can move thousands of km/sec, although the average is closer to 500 km/sec, and have a mass of trillions of kg, in a concentrated volume.

      • Although, all PNs are not so well behaved. Some appear to be very turbulent, and have concentrated tendrils and spikes of material.
        But even then, at the sort of distances that any could possibly form at, at would be nothing compared to even a medium sized Earth-Directed CME. A large one of those (E-D CME) like the Carrington event will cause absolute destruction of our electrical infrastructure, and is actually the catastrophe most likely to cause great harm in our lifetime.
        A large CME has been speculated may destroy every transformer on every power transmission and distribution line in the area affected, which could be half the Earth or more.
        There are no warehouses with replacements for all of these on hand…they would need to be manufactured, and this would take years, and in the meantime the country would be largely without power.
        Civilization may have a hard or impossible time surviving in a recognizable form in the wake of such and event.
        https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/NGC_6326_by_Hubble_Space_Telescope.jpg
        http://modernsurvivalblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/solar-superstorm-will-bring-down-the-power-grid.jpg

  2. To quote a famous, amateur astronomer / musician … … “Well; we don’t really know”.

  3. Brian,
    I studied these things back in college with my advisor (Karl Henize, later a shuttle astronaut), who put an ultraviolet camera on the door of a Gemini spacecraft back in 1966 to photograph their UV spectrum. The name was coined by William Herschel, who noted in 1781 or so that the brighter ones looked like pale blue tiny disks, similar to the planet Uranus (which Herschel had just discovered). They’re quite pretty in a moderate size telescope (12-inch or so), and you can easily see what Herschel was talking about.
    To answer your questions, these nebulae are very tenuous, and would have no effect on earth whatsoever, except in one case….
    Planetary nebulae are the expelled outer atmospheres of red giant stars, which will be the sun’s case in 7 billion years or so. Earth will be in a sorry state during the sun’s red giant stage, so the planetary nebula will have little additional effect.
    A nebula from even the nearest star (the Alpha Centauri system, actually three stars) would be so diffuse by the time it got here we wouldn’t notice it.
    Planetary nebulae are fairly peaceful puffs of material from the outer shells of red giant stars, not to be confused with supernova remnants, which are bits of the entire star gone ka-blooey.
    So, planetary nebulae are even less of a threat than global warming, which itself is no threat (except, of course, by the global warming that will happen when the sun goes red giant).

    • I heard they are going to finally undo William Herschel’s joke on King George, and change the name of his planet.
      Supported by teachers unions and the union of concerned scientists, this move will finally put an end to the endless sniggering and classroom disruptions caused by this embarrassing to pronounce appellation.

      • They tried to get rid of the name of planet Venus because when discussing it, people might refer to things Venereal. They tried to substitute Cythereal, but it didn’t take. Venusian seems to have done though.
        Fewf! Dodged that bullet!

      • We should go back to calling it Planet Herschel, since the French wouldn’t accept Planet George.

  4. One of my favorite sci-fi novels (and movie) is Carl Sagan’s Contact. The book also has much more detail about Ellie’s warp travel at the end that should have been in the movie.

  5. As an engineer and amateur astronomer l have to keep reminding myself that all of this, and we, are purely an accident of the perfect balance of the four fundamental forces which are each also accidentally exactly what they are.

  6. Confused. It says that for a planetary nebula to form the star has to have a mass 8 times less than our Sun. Then it says our Sun will form a planetary nebula in the future. I assume that our Sun will reduce its mass by 8 times in a few billion years for this to happen?

    • Sorry, sir. You got that info garbled up, Mr. Mesecke.
      Stars of less than 8 solar masses may form planetary nebulae. The sun will for one after a few more billions of years. At that point in time, the sun will be somewhat but not tremendously less massive at that time.
      Above 8 solar masses, a different evolution is thought to occur, as the core of such massive stars will reach temperatures and densities sufficient to fuse heavier elements, and hence there will be no slow fade to obscurity for these Baby Huey’s of the solar family.
      They fall down, go boom.

  7. Myron,
    No, if our sun were 8 times larger it would not form a planetary nebula but would super nova.

    • In Australia we had a great fast bowler, playing cricket, whose name was McGrath. We pronounce it McGraa. So the cheering would start with Ooo Aaah, Glen McGrath.
      Maybe it should have been (Southern Cross) Nebulaaaa Glen McGrath. He eclipsed every record in Test cricket for a fast bowler, except runs per out and he is in the top 5 of that.
      A bowler is equivalent to a pitcher in baseball.

  8. As I understand it (IANAL – I am not a lawyer) it’s not the nebula that is dangerous, but rather the (wave-length) emissions from the nova event. Most of the websites talk more about supernovae, and I see it is estimated they could cause damage at distances of 3000 light-years.
    And, yes, I love to see articles here which do not deal with global warming.

    • This shell is not produced by a nova event, but by a process more akin to a slow solar wind.
      Stars exist in a continuous state of tension and balance between the gravity which wants to suck them into a compact sphere, and the fusion producing heat and hence outward pressure counteracting this inward pull. As the core of stars begin to exhaust their supply of hydrogen fuel, one of several things can happen, and what happens next is a result of the interplay of varying temperatures and pressures as various elements either do or do not begin to fuse. The outer hydrogen shells, enriched in heavier elements by the time the nebula is cast off, gets very hot for a time and begins to expand, and the star enters a red giant phase.
      The conclusion of this red giant phase is a planetary nebula.
      Fascinating stuff.
      Read all about stellar evolution and how the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram relates in a very regular way the relationship between a stars mass, it lifetime on the main sequence, and it’s subsequent evolution before dying:
      https://starhuckster.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/hr-diagram2.jpg

      • Nice diagram. Star evolution process has been worked out, among others, by Fred Hoyle. Unfortunately, this diagram doesn’t show the age of the stars, which, as observed, exceeds in many cases the maximum age of the Universe postulated by the Big Bang theory. Proponents of this theory have no explanation for this fact.

      • Mr. Feht,
        I posted one elsewhere that shows the longevity of various masses of star.
        But this does not imply current age…but how long going forward.
        I would be very interested to see evidence of a contradiction between age of universe calculations, and anything else…including age of stars.
        I for one do not believe that Big Bang is as 100% for sure as many others do. Certainly the evidence seems so far to be consistent with that hypothesis, but considering how poorly understood some things are…it is possible we are just myopically certain of a falsehood.

  9. Let this be a warning to you! See what happens when you ignore the likes of the Prophets Hansen and Mann; when you don’t vote for the good lord Obama; and when you don’t give them all your money so as to limit CO2: you end up with the biggest spherical greenhouse in the universe! You have been warmed!
    [/s]?

  10. How far away is it?
    In other words, this is a snapshot of the conditions in that sector of space how long ago ??

    • I suffered recurring nightmares of the rover suffocating me when I was quite a small boy. I didn’t know what it was until vintage reruns in the 2000s. I’m much better now.

    • I think that thing did a cameo appearance on Star Trek TOS and was a higher intelligence that Spock did a Vulcan mind meld on. I can’t be sure though, we had a black and white TV then.

  11. Neat photo.
    The ESO – European Southern Observatory – per Wikipedia, which even I can edit, so plainly totally trust-worthy (more so even than a politician!) – gets about 130 million Euros a year today. It’s been going since 1962.
    They’ve done some interesting work – to see go to Wikipedia and search ESO.
    http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/top100/ – the top 100 images, bears a few minutes of appreciation.
    Auto

  12. A planetary nebula is called this way because early astronomers confused the disk-shaped appearance with new planets in our own solar system.

    • An intriguing observation! can you link me to an image of one? I have some curiosity about the electric universe theory and stellar plasma phenomena, as it appears to be the most simple explanation of certain things like Mars’ topography and pulsars, to name two. I have not dismissed the possibility that electro-magnetism might have played a role in the changes this planet has experienced.

      • I agree. it is difficult to escape the idea that much remains to be officially learned and acknowledged.
        Hard to do when those writing the textbooks insist our training is complete, and we are now a race of science Jedi.

      • We are, in actuality, barely separated from our wet nurses for long enough to be considered as even novice Padawan apprentices.

  13. As for a star to continue burning nuclear fuel after going through a planetary nebula phase: When the star can’t keep its surrounding nebula glowing, it is done with any significant nuclear fusion. The star is then cooling, and glows at least almost entirely from stored heat and from shrinking to convert gravitation potential energy to heat. At that point, the star is already an early stage white dwarf.
    White dwarf stars exist with a very wide range of surface temperatures. The hottest ones that are newly white dwarf stars have surface temperature over 50,000 K, which is noticeably bluish – when the light from these stars can be seen in sufficient quantity to see its color, and without interference from surrounding recently expelled gas/dust, interstellar gas/dust, and brighter stars. The coolest white dwarf stars have surface temperature around or a little under 4,000 K, and astronomers generally refer to stars other than coolest white dwarfs with such surface temperature as “orange”, although they typically have colors like those of tungsten halogen lamps.
    As for mass range of stars that evolve into planetary nebulae: Not only is there an upper limit of initial star mass around 8 solar masses, but also there is a lower limit. Stars with mass less than something like 80-90 % of that of the sun won’t produce planetary nebulae until their age exceeds the current age of the universe, according to modern astrophysics theory. Stars with initial mass less than half that of the sun are theorized to never get into using helium for nuclear fusion, and I think that means they become white dwarf stars without ever getting hot enough to produce enough sufficiently-shortwave UV to make a planetary nebula significantly glow. Stars with initial mass .08-.1 times that of the sun (minimum mass to become a star is currently theorized as .08 solar mass) are theorized to never become red giants, but to stay on the main sequence for trillions of years, and then next become white dwarfs without ever getting surface temperature much higher than the sun has now.

    • We will need to get us one of those in a few billion years.
      I wonder if instead we can just siphon off some of the sun’s mass to increase it’s longevity?
      Or is it too late?
      (Although I must say, I find the idea that (recognizable) people will be around in even a few million years to be a dubious proposition, but I cannot say why I think that. Worrying about whether people will be around in a few billion years seems like…well…it really seems to me to be quite unlikely to be even a miniscule possibility.)

      • We will need to get us one of those in a few billion years.

        Right. An advanced race w/a very long-term outlook would set up cities & bases around the smallest main-sequence dwarfs. No worries about that star running out of fuel for a few trillion yrs….
        Or, they may just do away w/living on gravity wells & live permanently in space…

    • On the flip side of that time calculation, Donald, an eight stellar mass star (Such as Bellatrix, also known as Gamma Orionis, it marks Orion’s left shoulder) goes through it’s hydrogen in about 20 million years, which is how old this star is. It will soon be a red giant. A little bigger and they last only a million years or so before going supernova.
      Stars like this are millions of times brighter than the sun. If one of these was were Alpha Centauri is, the Earth would be evaporated within a microsecond!
      (Just kidding about that last part…I have no idea really how bad the effect would be on Earth. Maybe it would just be a handy spotlight, or maybe we could grow crops at night…)

  14. I need to extrapolate Marcott et al., a bit more, but is it safe to say now that my Dad’s planet is hotter than your Dad’s planet, you pathetic aliens ….

  15. As fascinating as the Southern Owl Nebula are all the other objects in this picture. Aside from numerous individual stars, if you look closely you can see a number of galaxies, some binary stars and maybe a globular cluster in the upper left. Just imagine how many more stunning objects like the Southern Owl Nebula each of the galaxies contains.Thanks for sharing this.

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