A hole in space… no really, an actual hole!

By Phil Plait | May 11, 2010 9:29 am

Space is black. I mean, duh, right? But really, it’s black because it’s almost entirely empty, so even with stars scattered around, there’s nothing to light up.

hst_ngc1999But some parts of space are bright: clouds of gas can be lit up by nearby stars, making them glow. However, just to make things more fun, there can be thicker patches of dust mixed in that block the light from the stars and gas behind them. We see lots of those, they’re pretty common. But there’s yet another "however": that dust only blocks the visible light. In the infrared, that dust should itself glow because it’s warm.

NGC 1999 — seen here in a famous Hubble picture — has all these ingredients. It’s a thick region of gas and dust. Stars are being born in and around it, brightening it with their reflected light (as seen in the image; the star V380 Orionis on the left is lighting up the surrounding space junk) as well as warming it up and making it glow on its own. Even so, the oddly-shaped patch to the right was thought to be an unusually dense blob of dust, blocking the light from gas on the other side of it from us.

A lot of the time those dense spots are where stars are being born, and the only way to see them is in the infrared. So astronomers pointed the European space-based Herschel infrared observatory at it, fully expecting to see the whole thing glowing with perhaps a nascent star forming in the dark blob. But that’s not quite how it worked out…

herschel_ngc1999

Here’s the Herschel image they got. See that green blob near the top? That’s the part you can see in the Hubble image. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the Hubble shot, with the star V380 Orionis on the left, lots of glowy stuff, and that dark spot just to the right of it…

Wait, what? That spot is still dark? In the far infrared? That can’t be right. Even if it were only a few degrees above absolute zero it should be glowing at least a little bit.

So the astronomers followed up with more observations from the ground, and found something astonishing: it really is a hole, an actual empty region in the middle of a dense cloud! That’s the exact opposite of what they expected. There’s no there there. What could have done this?

It turns out that the fault may lie in the stars themselves. Many times, when stars are born, they form twin beams of material that blast out of their poles. That must have happened here; there are plenty of very young stars in this volume of space. It’s likely that one (or maybe more) of them switched on beams like this. The furious torch of matter and energy punched its way into the surrounding nebulosity, creating this tunnel right on through to the other side. I’ll note it’s unlikely that V380 Orionis had much or anything to do with carving this hole; it’s actually well past the age where it would make such beams. That only happens with stars that are only a million or so years old at most. V380 is already a stable star, well past that age, so it’s probably innocent.

NGC 1999 is a familiar object to a lot of astronomers. The odd shape of the dark spot (it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter) makes it fairly iconic. So this news is a bit of a shake up; I was delighted when I read it. I love it when we see something new under any circumstances, but something we thought we knew — something we could almost dismiss as being well-enough understood that it was no big deal — to find out it’s actually unique and wholly unexpected… well, that’s just awesome.

Surprises in science are the best results you can get. Nothing makes scientists happier than having to turn their pencils around and use the other end.

Credits: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI), ESA/HOPS Consortium

Comments (106)

  1. Levi in NY

    Pareidolia alert! See the guy with sunglasses to the left of the object in the Herschel image?

  2. Maybe it’s because my frame of reference is here on Earth, but looking at the Hubble picture, I just assumed that the black area was empty. It looks very much like fog in front of a street lamp, with an area of no fog in the center. The fog is lit up by the light, but the area of no fog is black simply because what is behind it is black.

    But maybe this is a situation that just doesn’t normally occur in space (makes sense, because the ‘fog’ would fill in due to gravity).

  3. Billingham

    It’s the Unabomber!

  4. @Levi in NY

    You beat me to it. Aviators and grills.

    As to the hole, clearly it is the Nothing. Quick, find a kid to start reading a book so he can save the universe!

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Nothing comes of nothing .. ;-)

    It leaves an empty space,

    A void created by a star,

    The shadow of the great brilliance that punched through and burned out,

    Leaving nothing but vacant ruin its wake.

  6. cgauthier

    Yeah, I have to say that I always thought it looked like an empty region, too. I’m surprised that the astronomers are surprised.

    I know that one cannot always rely on intuition when interpreting astro-photography, especially laymen like myself, but I guess, sometimes a hole is just a hole.

  7. @Levi In NY:
    Hahaha! That’s the very first thing I noticed! Good call!

  8. The odd shape of the dark spot (it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter)

    That was my first impression as well. (“Great minds think alike”?)

    to find out it’s actually unique and wholly unexpected

    “Wholly unexpected”, sure. But who says it’s “unique”?

    Remember… “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is.”

  9. Jon Hanford

    William Herschel himself might note (again!): “Hier ist wahrhaftig ein Loch im Himmel !” [Here is truly a hole in Heaven!].

  10. Pi-needles

    Newsflash here : new kind of black hole found in space – and its even bigger and more black than usual! ;-)

    Hey, its black and its a hole what else can you call it?

  11. Bekka

    The infrared picture looks surprisingly a lot like the “God” that Bender meets after getting shot from the Planet Express ship in Futurama.

    http://progressiveboink.com/justin/Futurama/god1.jpg

  12. GDC

    I have to admit that the first thing I noticed was what appears to be a giant diagram of the female reproductive system in the middle.

  13. Pi-needles

    Move along NOTHING to see here … although in *this* case that’s the attraction! ;-)

  14. @Levi in NY … looks like it’s a cosmic ghost-monkey!

    This is really cool! I appreciate the fact that we are still seeing new phenomena in the universe.

  15. Woof

    (it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter)

    It looks like a pawn to me.

  16. HP

    “Listen, do you know there are holes in the sky? No I mean it, I’ve seen ‘em. There’s a thing in the constellation Andromeda — no no wait a minute, I’m not gonna get technical with you, just listen. There this thing, astronomers call it ‘the horse head nebula’. You know what it is? It’s a hole. It’s a great big patch of nothing — just nothing. There aren’t any stars there, just… just a hole. No, nobody knows anything about it, astronomers look at it, they take pictures of it and there it stays. There it is now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and a million years from now… and it’s been there always. Yes, it has. It’s so far away that what you see now is the way it looked a billion years ago — before there was anybody to see it, friend. And there’s lots more of those places. So what’s all this got to do with a little house on top of Mt. Wilson? I’ll tell you.”

    — Wyllis Cooper, Quiet, Please,Nothing Behind the Door,” 1947

  17. Chris

    This is clearly the work of God, as only He could hold all that matter apart.

    Also, He’s one of only a handful of deities who could afford V380 Orionis-front property in the expensive NGC 1999 neighborhood.

    He probably summers there.

  18. Geoff Romer

    Yeah, my visual intuition also says that’s obviously a hole, but I think that intuition can be made more precise. For example, if the black area is a denser clump of dust within the nebula, it should be casting a shadow away from the star. In other words, how is the dust at the lower right being illuminated, if there’s an opaque clump of dust between it and the star?

    That can be explained if the black area is closer to us than the illuminated dust, rather than being embedded within it, but that leaves a new problem: I think the illuminated dust to the lower right of the black area is *brighter* than the dust at corresponding distances in other directions, and its brightness definitely falls off rapidly as you move away from the edge of the black area. If the black area is a hole, this is easy to explain: the light from the star in most directions is attenuated by the nebular dust, so it gets dimmer, but the light traveling towards the lower right passes through the hole, so it’s not attenuated by intervening dust and is brighter when it reaches the edge, but then falls off rapidly as it’s attenuated by the dust beyond the edge of the hole. If the black area is in front of the nebula, these features are very difficult to explain.

    Whether the black area is embedded in the illuminated dust or in front of it, there’s a bigger problem: the edges of the black area have an obvious filamentary structure. This is trivial to account for if the black area is a hole: we’re seeing filaments of illuminated dust flowing through the otherwise empty space of the hole. If the black area is dust in front of an illuminated background nebula, those filaments have to be gaps sliced all the way through the dust to reveal the nebula behind, which *just happen* to look like fluid streamlines when viewed from Earth.

    I find it hard to imagine nobody else considered these points, so I wonder if Phil is overselling the degree to which everyone assumed it was a clump of dust, not a hole.

  19. Stan9FOS

    “How much more black could this be?” and the answer is: “None … none more black.” …
    Thanks, Nigel.

  20. For some reason, about two-thirds through reading this post I started hearing the Doors.

    You know the day destroys the night
    Night divides the day
    Tried to run
    Tried to hide
    Break on through to the other side

  21. Plutonian

    @15. Woof Says:

    (it’s always reminded me of a Shuttle Orbiter) It looks like a pawn to me.

    The first Hubble picture there looks like a coal miner’s head and shoulders seen front-on but from an angle wearing the traditional helmet lamp [V380 Orionis ] surrounded by swirling coal dust or smoke from a mine collapse or something to me.

    Or, maybe, the torch of Lady Liberty, [ie the Statute in New York] lit up and seen through a dense mist from a perspective close below it if your lying on your back.

    The bottom image via Herschel?

    Well there’s a great Cloaked Death’s head paradolia in the top left hand corner. V380 Orionis and its adjacant “black hole” is like a map of Tasmania (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tasmania ) with Queenstown (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queenstown,_Tasmania) “starred” while an owl with a very big beak sits inside the triangle of yellow star / nebular blobs.

    In the bottom at the middle are two overlapping hearts, the smaller red, the larger mostly greenish pierced by a turquoise arrow extending again past the yellow trio. A stereotypical witches hat is falling downwards through the picture, its point in the Yellow triangle and its base to the right-hand side of the Tasmanian map & extending from the Yellow Trio again down to the bottom-right diagonally is a blue silhoutte of jelly fish tentacles and emeshed in the red nebulosity.

    So .. Do I pass the Rorsach test? ;-)

    – Ex-Plutonium being from Pluto

  22. Kevin

    Didn’t I see this in an episode of Star Trek? Yeah, I think it was “The Immunity Syndrome.”

  23. m5

    Daleks. It’s Daleks.

  24. Mad Non-Practicising Scientist

    So our first images of a wormhole! ….. No? How disappointing :-(

  25. Douglas Troy

    Fear not! I have a Universal patch kit on hand.

    :P

  26. Bruce

    In looking at the Herschel picture, am I’m seeing one of those beams from a star’s pole? If you look at the bluish white star near the center of the picture and the orange blob just below it and to the left. In between the two is some blue material, and if you use that as a line more of that blue material extends past the orange blob and out to what appears to me to be a mushroom shape of that blue material. All of which looks like it’s coming toward us. Well out to the bottom left of us.

    Am I just seeing things?

  27. Jon Hanford

    @26 Bruce:

    I think what you are describing are bipolar jets from very young stars in the Herschel IR image. Many young stars in this region are indeed producing these fascinating objects. A wide-field optical image of this region (by Robert Gendler) also shows several bipolar jets [to the right and the left of center]: http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/NGC1999NM.html . Great catch!

  28. Leon

    Funny, I was thinking it should be called the Pawn Nebula (maybe my mind went to that image because I was explaining chess pieces to my daughter yesterday).

  29. jcm

    “Surprises in science are the best results you can get. Nothing makes scientists happier than having to turn their pencils around and use the other end.”

    The correction machinery of science at work–something that religion lacks.

  30. Mr. Owl

    Uh, that doesn’t make it a hole in space….it’s a hole in the “surrounding nebulosity.”

  31. queue

    Its clearly the Medusa Cascade.

  32. It sure looks like a Klingon Bird of Prey. So it must be cloaked…
    Yeah.

  33. reidh

    Maybe its extra-trrestrials trying to communicate visually.

  34. scribbler

    Love all the jokes!

    Great humor guys!

    It certainly looks like something blasted through the gas with lineal force. I’ve seen metal cutting using water with sand in it at extreme high pressure. It makes identical looking “cuts”…

    And…

    Call me crazy but it looks like Stevie Wonder to me!

  35. bitemark

    I thought these were known as Fry–err, Hawking-holes.

  36. Ken

    Very cool … but it would have been more cool if it hadn’t been implied that it was actually a hole in space itself … there is actually a ‘there’ there, it is just an empty ‘there’.

  37. MadScientist

    It looks to me like a very cold pawn in an intergalactic chess game. It must be cold if we can’t measure the radiation it emits.

  38. TheVirginian

    No! No! Everyone’s missing the true picture here.
    Look at that reddish area in the center. Don’t you see the two horns sprouting from it at the top! And the main red area is definitely a face, but a goatish one. I can see an ear stretching to the right!
    OK, the multiple flaming mouths are puzzling, but when you’re Satan, you’re not going to be mishapen!
    It is none other than the Devil himself, and that black area is the gateway to Hell behind him!
    If the Milky Way galaxy is heading that way, then it would mean we’re all going to Hell! Please tell me we’re going in the opposite direction!!!!!

  39. Oh, yeah. Sorry. That was me. The Tardis was acting up and I had to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and that caused the entire sector to go all timey wimey. Bit of a bother, really.

  40. In the top picture, I can “see” the earth — South America is quite visible, with North America slightly less so, and even some hints of Africa and Europe. And I can also “see” the bottom of an orbiter in the configuration of that hole. Strange, this pareidolia.

  41. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    If you start with nothing, which appears to be infinite, then add an expanding universe into it, compared to the vastness of nothing, would not the universe of today still be a singularity? Or, is there a hole in my conjecture?

  42. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    That is to say how much of nothing percentage wise has our universe filled?

  43. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Perhaps this is why we shrink as we grow older. It’s nothing really.

  44. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    What hole? I don’t see anything.

  45. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Check it out with the Chandra. I think it’s X-Rayted.

  46. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    It reminded me of Morrison too.

  47. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    “Come on baby light my fire.”

  48. Andrew

    Looks like a big, giant smoke ring of gas to me. Perhaps from some ancient supernova.

  49. Jack

    I think the title (and part of the wording in the article) is misleading. When you say “an actual hole” and “there is no there there,” it implies that spacetime is warped somehow in this area (if theres no there there, then it is not a spacetime event / actual location). Of course there is a there there, theres just not any stuff there. Its a vacuum-ish area in the middle of a dust cloud, so its a hole in the dust cloud, not a hole in space. The choice of language is a little hyperbolic . . . (ba dum, chh)

  50. Actually, it’s been changed a countless number of times over the years…by people — you know, mortals — just like you and me. The Bible is no more the work of God than the Harry Potter series is.

  51. The cloud looks like a giant omelet with a hole in it. Anyone else see it or is it just me?

  52. importer50

    Oh…come on, we can all see it’s what left after a Gamma Ray Burst shot right thru that area of space… don’t you all agree… aw come on now!!!

  53. John

    Clearly it’s where Gallifrey used to be located prior to the Last Great Time War.

  54. STKnight

    Why can I plainly see a star in the hole in the IR image and not a hint of a star in the same place of the much sharper Hubble image.

  55. BadWolf

    If you look carefully, you can see the TARDIS floating in it.
    I wonder what the Doctor did to cause this?

  56. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    You mean Harry Potter isn’t real???

  57. Vogon Jeltz

    We had to clear that spot to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  58. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    My degree from Hogwarts is worthless???

  59. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Percentage wise our universe has filled up nothing of nothing. That must be why it is full of holes.

  60. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    They airbrushed out the star so that the hole would look like it is a hole in space instead of a hole in the gas cloud.

  61. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Everything amounts to nothing.

  62. Paul D

    Smoke ring…nothing more, nothing less. It’s nice to know that scientists forget the basic fundamentals of “When you hear hoofs coming toward you think horses not Zebras” precept of science.

  63. I really enjoyed all the above comments, but it is obvious to me that it is Salvador Dali peeking through watching Halibuton trying to put the oil back in its hole.

  64. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    The slick extends into space. Google will let you put it any where.

  65. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Phil……..You didn’t……

  66. FRANK ZUCCARO

    Let’s call it ‘Bush’s Cranial Cavity’.

  67. Ranger97

    Wait! I think I have the answer!!! The astronomer spilled their coffee on the photo (no cream, sugar unknown).

  68. Ranger97

    On second thought, I think it’s where God divided by zero!

  69. Zen

    I don’t know much about spewing stars and space but I thought if the hole was created by a star spewing stuff out there would at least be some sort of heat left behind. Also, shouldn’t some of the spewed stuff also be left behind?

  70. Dave

    My god, it’s full of tar.

  71. Nursey

    Too bad our space program is coming to an end…….

  72. soulrider

    the title of the article says it all…. A-hole in space. Looks like somebody finally found the exit.

  73. Hey Guys,

    So where is this hole located? I mean the coordinates w.r.t. the Milky Way?
    Is this even in Milky Way? Anywhere near the area of our Solar System?
    Let me know!!!!

    Harsha

  74. Steph

    @Levi! LOL! Saw it too man! Looks like a skull with aviaters to me ^.^
    I am honestly surprised the scientists didn’t even speculate that this was a hole in the dust cloud. That was the first thing it looked like to me, even in the Hubble image.

  75. kyzf42

    Does anyone else think it looks an awful lot like a keyhole? Wonder what could be kept behind a lock that size…

  76. Corbijn

    This is my question, if it’s a area devoid of anything, doesn’t that make it true “space”? Space always contains something no matter how sparce. There are no absolutes and this could be something that cannot register to us. What if the area is beyond absolute zero? Maybe the area is comprised of what is called dark matter? Maybe it’s part of another dimension or parallel universe? Who knows, but whatever it is this is interesting. What if it’s a hole that was left over from the Albert Hall?

  77. Don

    I bought a bag of holes at Dunkin Donuts once. When I got home there was nothing in the bag! Nothing but a hole!

  78. polo

    it looks like bolt from the Disney movie. it also looks like a fish, and a pig at the same time.
    or a man with “bolts” face and a red jumpsuit and looks to be holding a violin

  79. I think that’s where LOST me be.

  80. jigyjafalot

    probably god divided by negative infinity to see what would happen.
    or maybe it’s where my textbooks are. if anyone goes there tell them to look for a “life science edition”textbook. i might need it when tests come around. oh well.

  81. JCJ

    @ Paul D (#64), Chris Erwin (#2), and cgauthier (#6)

    The point here is that experience has taught astronomers to expect otherwise. Looking at nebulae in visible light we often see dark areas that look like holes. On closer examination (in IR) these have always turned out to be dense regions of dust that block visible light but are “visible” in IR. So this hole is in fact a “zebra” in Paul D’s analogy.

  82. Aurthur D.

    if you look really close, you can see a sign that says “Beware of the Leopard”

  83. another idiot

    its probably just were all the space poop goes. what else would a hole be for?

  84. so if we can go through the black hole then we can go to the past or future right? hehe…

  85. Mack in WI

    @Chris (#14) I thought it looked like the same thing! It’s kinda creepy, yet awesome.

  86. LordOfRuin

    “Nothing makes scientists happier than having to turn their pencils around and use the other end.”

    Oh my, that made me smile a lot.

  87. Ayala

    Alderaan?? Nooo!!!!!!!!! ;)

  88. Kristi

    @ LordOfRuin #88: I completely agree! It made me smile too :)

    This article is fascinating.. I love stumbling across stuff like this while I’m supposed to be working. Thanks for publishing this! I love my new desktop.

  89. Ted

    Looks like something pretty big flew thru it like a plane thru a small cloud I’d be checkin the area for large moving objects

  90. Ted? Do you mean that plane that went into the Pentagon, instead?

  91. Astronaut

    save the picture, rotate the picture, look at it upside down, tell me what you see…. SCARY!!!

  92. scribbler

    Uh…

    Black holes are where God Divides by zero, not, um, black holes…

    I think…

    Perhaps we should consult Steven Wright?

  93. trace

    yup… first thing my eyes detected was the face wearing sun-glass’s.. haha~

  94. Chilko

    It’s not so much that there is a hole there. It’s really, what caused it. How do you get a perfect hole in the middle of a cloud of dust and gas? Their best guess is a new star did it. That is one big hole to have been pushed out of a cloud by one or two little stars in comparison.
    Good mystery!

  95. Delaiah

    People, please! It’s obviously a Vogon work site.

  96. M

    @Charles
    Yes if the universe is a small fraction of the multiverse it is indeed small. I believe there are a few definitions of universe though, and here are some.

    Universe..

    1. Is the observable extent, contains galaxies etc. Surrounded by dark matter at its limits thus expanding the observable indefinately.

    2. Is the total space whether we see its total extent or not. Could be multiple universes around us (in normal space) exerting attraction and so expanding our universe until pieces collide with other universes.

    3. Is a giant loop of space that runs out then restarts over and over. Some sort of recycling of the mater energy. Once all the energy has leaked out to a high dimension that dimension becomes unstable and another black hole erupts into space and it repeats. Debatable if the energy is finite and if so we will need to be destroyed to be recreated. The actual realitity of existence is some superposition we dont know about and we live in a volitile environment that could be instantaneous to the above environment or not.

    4. Lots of universes living in bubbles on some event horizon of realitity we dont know about. We can travel between them as we please.

    Personally i dont know for sure but id reckon number 3 is right.

  97. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    @M Thank you for the information! I was just thinking that if our universe started in nothing, it would always be tiny compared to the vast expanse of nothing. It does not seem possible to fill up all of nothing. At last check nothing doesn’t have any edges. At least none that I can imagine. I can imagine multi-verses existing beyond our perceptual dimension, too far away for us to detect, in their own dimension within the same vast nothing which might contain our universe. If we both expand enough we would ultimately detect them and then we would become part of an even larger universe as the universes co-mingle perceptually. Again it would all just be a part of the universe which we haven’t detected yet. It is like that car you just passed on the highway. Those people are in another perceptual dimension away from you now. Multi-verses would only be all part of a larger universe. How big is nothing? How big is big? I feel very singular.

  98. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    And if that isn’t enough, thanks to Phil, I have to watch out for pot holes.

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