Washington: NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer has captured images of a dying star that resembles a glowing jellyfish floating at the bottom of a dark, speckled sea.
“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.
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 case a pair of stars causes the gas to fluoresce with colourful light. 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.
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 stellar winds, forming the rings.
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.
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 find has been reported in the Astronomical Journal.
First Published: Thursday, November 18, 2010, 13:00