Frankenstein nebula

By Phil Plait | March 4, 2008 9:17 am

Planetary nebulae are too cool.

When a star like the Sun dies, it goes through a series of episodes where it blows off dense winds, vast volumes of gas which expand out from the star in exotic shapes. This is caused by paroxysms in the star’s core; at its advanced age, fusion of one element into another is unstable, and sometimes huge amounts of energy are suddenly dumped into the star’s outer layers. These outer layers respond by swelling and shrinking, and this in turn is reflected in the winds the star blows.

NGC 2371, seen here in a new Hubble Space Telescope picture, is just such a nebula. The winds from the star have slammed into each other, creating the odd puffy shape. As the star sheds its overcoat of material, the hot, dense core is exposed — you can see it as the pinkish-white dot in the center. That color isn’t real; in fact the star, now called a white dwarf, would be bluish or intensely white. But it’s hot, no doubt: it’s over 130,000 degrees Celsius — and that’s not even the hottest one known, which is well over 200,000 degrees!

At that temperature, the star floods the gas with ultraviolet light, which ionizes the material and makes it glow in the same way as a neon sign. In this particular image, sulfur and nitrogen glow red, hydrogen is green, and oxygen is blue. The colors aren’t real; they were just chosen for aesthetics. In general, hydrogen is reddish and oxygen is green.

I was intrigued by the two pink stubs you can in the nebula, on opposite sides of the central star. Those are called FLIERs, for Fast Low-Ionization Emission Regions (I have details on what they are at that link). Their exact formation mechanism isn’t well-understood, but they always appear like that, on opposite sides of the star, so some symmetric shaping force is at work.

I had to laugh when I saw them; they looked like the electrical studs in the neck of the classic Frankenstein’s monster. Too bad I don’t get to name nebulae! I guess, though, after a second look the studs are too high. They look like ears, maybe, or antennae. There was a robot in an old movie or a book cover; I can’t remember, but it had little antennae sticking out of its head just like this. Anyone remember what I’m talking about? Stuff like that makes me crazy when I can’t remember it. Like an itch you can’t scratch.

Anyway, if you like planetary nebulae, then search the blog here for more; I’ve written about them quite bit, since I studied them for both my Masters and PhD. The Hubble website has dozens and dozens of them, too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, Pretty pictures, Science
MORE ABOUT: frankenstein, Hubble, nebula

Comments (25)

  1. Shaun

    Vincent, from “The Black hole”?

  2. It’s Rosie, the Jetsons’ robotic maid.

  3. John V

    I’m also going to say it’s Rosie.

  4. themadlolscientist

    Hey, guys! We just found a Sasquatch footprint!


    [to next nebula over] “Hey babe. Wanna get together and make some baby stars?”

  5. Austin

    I was going to go with the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones.

  6. Félix

    Ok, I know this Hypothesis must have been considered, but could those FLIERs form themselves at the top and bottom of the star’s magnetic field?

    Ionized by the UV rays, the gazes would be charged, and tend to follow the magnetic output of the star, and thus avoid the polar regions. Less gazes there would mean that they could still be ionized and send us their light, but being less dense, the amount of light received from there would be less, compared to the other regions of the planetary nebulae. Is that plausible?

  7. tenacious

    Austin beat me. Link and all. It definitely reminds me of The Great Gazoo. :o)

  8. Félix

    To Astronomer : If you don’t rectify these “errors” you have absolutely no credibility. lol, get a life!

  9. B Green

    You shouldn’t feed the trolls, they’ll just keep coming back.

  10. Hoonser

    That’s a bit of a stretch. Looks more like an evil rabbit looking downward. Cept it doesn’t have any ears.

  11. Could it be the robot from the silent movie, “Metropolis”, that turned into the girl?

  12. Cory

    Is the Hoagland’s face?

  13. It’s not Fritz Lang’s Robotrix — no antennae there.
    I’m afraid you might be remembering Ray Walston’s “Martian,” on “that show” which brought Sci Fi Television down to the sub-parody level, along with “It’s About Time,” or “My Living Doll.” (shudder)

  14. Zucchi

    Beautiful nebula. I’ve always wondered — if you were in a spaceship inside such a nebula, what would you see out the window? Would you even be able to tell you were in a nebula with the naked eye? (On shows like “Star Trek”, it’s like being in a multi-colored cloudbank, which seems a bit unlikely.)

  15. “When a star like the Sun dies, it goes through a series of episodes where it blows off dense winds, vast volumes which expand out…”
    Kinda sounds like me after a Taco Bell bean burrito.

  16. Is it just my connection, or that you’re website was partially down for a while? Nice photo, though.

  17. themadlolscientist

    @ Zucchi: BA says you wouldn’t see much. (Bummer.) Check out this segment from one of his live chats.

  18. Peter

    That’s clearly the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.

  19. Grand Lunar

    It looks more like a heart to me.

    But I think the name “Heart Nebula” has been taken.

    In any case, wouldn’t this give new meaning to “Hearts in Space”?

  20. John

    I like the Frankenstein name.

    Da-da-dada-da-da-da-daaaaaaa Da-da-da-dada

  21. Shaun

    OK, Badastro,

    We’ve given you plenty of suggestions and a day to think about it.

    Who was the robot?

  22. alfaniner

    You might be thinking about a robot from one of those old Republic serials — that was my first impression. Something out of Commando Cody, maybe?

  23. Baz00000

    Try Robbie from Forbidden Planet!


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