Astronomers Spot Unusual Laser Coming From Ant Nebula

Posted: May 18 2018, 2:55am CDT | by , Updated: May 18 2018, 4:21am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Astronomers Spot Unusual Laser Coming from Ant Nebula
Credit: University of Manchester

The recent observations from Herschel space observatory suggest that Ant Nebula may be hiding a binary star system at its core

Scientists analyzing the data from ESA's Herschel space observatory have found an unusual laser emission inside the Ant Nebula. Such intense laser emissions are rare for a nebula and indicate the presence of a double star system hidden at its heart.

A nebula is a giant cloud of dust and gas in space and some of these nebulae are formed by the explosion of a dying star. When stars like our sun die they eventually become dense, white dwarf stars. In the process, they shed their outer layers of dust and gas into space. The gravity slowly pulls together these clumps of dust and gas and form a massive cloud that is barely visible to naked eye from Earth. But these nebulae can be seen by using powerful telescopes.

From ground-based telescopes, the Ant Nebula officially known as Mz3 resembles the head and body of an ant. It was discovered in 1922 and lies between 3,000 and 6,000 light years from Earth. The images of Ant Nebula taken by NASA telescope already showed that the nebula has a pair of fiery lobes and the ejection of gas from the dying star in the Ant Nebula is violent. The gas at the center of Mz3 is producing intriguing symmetrical patterns unlike the chaotic patterns expected from an ordinary explosion.

The recent Herschel observations have shown that the core of Ant Nebula is even more dramatic than implied by its colorful appearance in Hubble images. The nebula is emitting intense laser which is detected only under certain conditions. One possibility is that Ant Nebula is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits relatively close to the bright one.

“We detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination laser emission, which is only produced in a narrow range of physical conditions,” said Dr. Isabel Aleman, lead author of the study. "Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission.”

Comparison of the observations with models suggests that the gas emitting the laser from the core is around ten thousand times denser than the gas seen in typical planetary nebulae and in the lobes of the Ant Nebula itself.

“The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc. In this nebula, we have actually observed a dense disc in the very center that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal,” said co-author Prof Albert Zijlstra from the Jodrell Bank Center for Astrophysics in the School of Physics & Astronomy.

"The disc suggests there is a binary companion because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula."

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