Awesome death spiral of a bizarre star

By Phil Plait | September 6, 2010 10:44 am

I sometimes think I’ve seen everything there is in the sky, with nothing new left to see.

Then I get a rude — but welcome — wake-up call.



[Click to enspiralnate.]

When I first saw this picture, my reactions, in order, were:

1) What the frak is that?

followed immediately by

2) This must be a fake!

But it’s not fake. It’s real, and it’s the dying gasp of a very, very strange star system.

The name of this thing is AFGL 3068. It’s been known as a bright infrared source for some time, but images just showed it as a dot. This Hubble image using the Advanced Camera for Surveys reveals an intricate, delicate and exceedingly faint spiral pattern. It’s so faint no one has ever detected it before!

So what’s going on here? First off, this is not a spiral galaxy! It’s a binary star*, two stars that orbit each other, located about 3000 light years away from us. One of the stars is what’s called a carbon star, similar to the Sun but much older. The Sun is still happily fusing hydrogen into helium in its core, but older stars run out of available hydrogen. Eventually, they fuse helium into carbon. When this happens the star swells up and becomes a red giant (note: that’s the brief version; the actual events are a tad more complicated).

Red giants tend to blow a lot of their outer layers into space in an expanding spherical wind; think of it as a super-solar wind. The star surrounds itself with a cloud of this material, essentially enclosing it in a cocoon. In general the material isn’t all that thick, but in some of these stars there is an overabundance of carbon in the outer layers which gets carried along in these winds. In these cases the material is very dense and opaque (carbon forms long, complex molecules that are very effective at absorbing visible light), and can completely block the light from the star. All we see is the warm glow from the cocoon as an infrared glow.

keck_afgl3068_llpegAFGL 3068 is a carbon star and most likely evolved just like this, but with a difference: it’s a binary. As the two stars swing around each other, the wind from the carbon star doesn’t expand in a sphere. Instead, we see a spiral pattern as the material expands.

This is called the sprinkler-head effect. As a sprinkler spins, the jet of water appears to take a spiral shape. Each individual drop is moving directly away from the sprinkler head, but the rotation of the head itself creates a global spiral pattern, with the arms appearing to expand. It’s not precisely an illusion — the spiral pattern is definitely there — but the arms aren’t an actual physical structure. It’s just the way we interpret the way the drops move away from the sprinkler. We see the same thing (on a much smaller scale!) when spinning comets give off gas, too.

Going back to our sprinkler analogy, if you’re standing in the yard as the sprinkler spins, you get hit with a blast of water. Wait a few seconds and you get hit again. Obviously, the time between soakings is the time it takes the sprinkler head to spin once, right? That means that we can measure the arms of AFGL 3068’s spiral and calculate the rotation period of the binary!

The expansion rate of the spiral material is about 15 km/sec (9 miles/sec). Given that distance, the time it takes between spirals turns out to be a little over 700 years. So if you were hovering in space outside this object and an arm swept past you, you’d have another 700 years before the next one blew your way again.

But there’s more! Using the monster Keck 10-meter infrared telescope, the astronomers who observed the object were able to see through the dark material to the binary inside (IR gets through the thick cloud of material more easily than visible light). Making some simple assumptions on the masses of the stars, they find the orbital period is about 800 years: very close to the spiral pattern’s period, given their estimations.

That also lets me measure the number of spirals — roughly five — and calculate the size of this object: about a third of a light year across, or more than 3 trillion kilometers!


So after boggling at this picture for a few minutes and marveling at the object it depicts, I had to wonder: while carbon stars are rare, they’re not totally unknown, so why don’t we see more of these amazing spirals?

I think I know why. For one thing, the carbon star at the center would have to be in a binary. That cuts back on their numbers. And more importantly, on a galactic timescale they just don’t last all that long; millennia as opposed to millions or billions of years, so we have to catch one at just the right stage. I doubt there are more than a handful of these objects in the entire Milky Way.

And also… this thing is faint. Really faint. This picture was made using 33 minutes of time on one of Hubble’s most sensitive cameras, and you can still barely see it. Why is it so faint? Well, the stars inside can’t light it up; their light is blocked by the material closer to the stars. So what is lighting it up?

Get this: the astronomers who observed AFGL 3068 think the spiral is being lit by galactic starlight. That’s incredible. The combined light of the distant stars is very, very dim, so it’s amazing to think it may be the only source of light on this object. Note that the spiral is slightly brighter on the right side than the left. It turns out that the galactic plane — where stars are most populous — is in that direction, so that fits. I have to wonder about that bright star in the image, too. It looks to be in the right direction as well, but we don’t know if it’s really close to us (in the foreground) or much more distant (in the background). In other words, it may be way too far from AFGL 3068 to be illuminating it.

All in all, this is an amazing system. The beauty of it is undeniable, as well as the astonishing and intricate nature of how it was formed. And for me it holds even more charm… because it reminds me that there are always more things to see, more surprises the Universe holds for us.

Tip o’ the pinwheel to HUBBLE_space on Twitter. Image credit: ESA/NASA & R. Sahai

*Nor is it a Russian rocket leaking fuel and spinning as it passes over Norway, though the physics is similar… on a scale a trillion times larger.

Related posts:

Awesomely bizarre light show freaks out Norway
Update on the Norway spiral
Another Russian rocket spiral lights up the sky
Oh those Falcon UFOs

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (106)

  1. It’s the alien spaceship from way over Norway! 😀 😀

  2. Trucker Doug

    My first thought? Oh no, a Boom Tube from Apokolips! Darkseid is invading!

    But I’m a Jack Kirby geek.

  3. Gary Ansorge


    Misquoting Mr Universe from Serenity:”You always bring me the best, exotic images,,,”.

    The first thing I thought of was a neutron star with an attendant debris cloud. Well, this is almost as exotic.

    Illuminated by galactic light? That Hubble is one sensitive instrument.

    Way cool!

    ,,,and to continue the quotes, from I, Claudius, when his wife said “Bring me MORE.”

    Gary 7

  4. Pete Jackson

    Bad Astronomer strikes again! Great find, Phil.

  5. Erasmussimo

    Does anybody know what the total integrated magnitude of the stars in the celestial sphere is? I could write a quick program to figure it out from a star catalog. Which reminds me — has anybody actually calculated the magnitude histograms to see where Olber’s Paradox breaks down?

  6. kevbo
  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Awesome! 😀

    Splendid, stunning spiralling image, excellent write up, fantastic, marvellous object.

    I also really love the richness of background galaxies in that picture. 😀

    There’s just one thing :

    The name of this thing is AFGL 3068.

    That’s NOT a name! Not a worthy one anyhow.

    The Spiral Star? The Stellar Carbon-star Spiral nebula? The Deathly Starlit Spiral Star?

    It deserves something more memorable and evocative anyhow in my book! 😉

    PS. What does AFGL come from anyhow – what does that stand for or which stellar survey was that?

  8. Crux Australis

    You just made my day.

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    @4. IMForeman Says: “The Bajoran wormhole!”

    Funny you should mention that. By odd co-incidence, I saw an episode of Deep Space Nine for the first time in *many* years tonight. The episode where Vash appears with Q for the first time and Quark & Vash try to auction off a troublesome glowing crystal thingy that turns out to be an embryonic interstellar lifeform if anybody’s curious. 😉

    PS. Would this be a protoplanetary nebula then? Any indication there of which way this star is moving like with R Hydrae’s bow shock and Mira’s comet-like tail?

  10. Argus suggests that AFGL stands for Air Force Geophysics Laboratory.

  11. So if its normally invisible, is just a marvelous coincidence that it was seen in this picture? Or was there something that gave suspicious minds something to wonder about, so they turned the our hero Hubble on to look at it.

    Suggested name: Ghost Spiral.

  12. Oh, jeepers, this is why I love the science of astronomy!

    The gorgeosity of the image is matched only by the incrediblosity of the information that can be deduced from it!

    Way cool!

  13. Chris Winter

    Awesome indeed! It’s hard to be sure, but I have the impression that there are at least seven loops of the spiral visible in that image. I also suspect that a greater number could be found.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Richard Woods & # 11 Argus : Thanks. :-)


    Do we know if the Ghost Spiral Star (thanks #10. Non-Believer) is a Mira long period variable or any other sort of variable for that matter?

    What is the exact spectral type – or range of spectral types if it is a Mira star?
    (There are many reasons why this class is named after the word “wonderful.”)

    Are there going to be any follow up observations to see if this Ghost Spiral nebula brightens and fades along with its primary’s luminence like Hubbles or Hinds variable nebuale do?

    I presume its out of range of even high end amateur CCD equipment?

    This is truly a wonder filled and breath takingly marvellous image – thanks BA you’ve made my night! :-)

  15. Utakata

    …so you’re saying, we can’t blame this one on the Russians this time. :)

  16. @ Utakata:

    No, because obviously this is the homeworld of the aliens whose pandimensional wormholes lit up the skies here on earth.

    Oh, wait, I bet that information wasn’t supposed to go out until the inevitable video on YouTube.

  17. Aleksandar

    It is sad to think of near future where there won’t be a Hubble anymore. Even if JWST flies, its still only infrared.

  18. roughly five

    I count at least seven.

  19. Really amazing 😉

    But there is another thing in this picture that got my attention. I have often seen that, but never came to a reason for that: Where do that shafts of light forming a cross with angles of obviously exactly ninety degrees, which occur at the brighest star as well as at those two stars in the upper half, come from? One sees something similar when looking at stars or even distant lights of planes with the naked eye, which I also cannot really explain…

  20. Navneeth

    I knew you’d do a write-up when I saw the Hubble POTW today. :) First thought, however: the missile over Norway.

  21. questionatic:

    The “spokes” on the bright star image are refraction patterns caused by the support struts that hold the telescope’s optics in place. The only way you’d see a similar pattern with the naked eye is if you’ve got an “X” of tiny metal inside your eyeball.

  22. Gerry

    Really needs the “Doctor Who” theme playing with the photo… 😉

  23. alfaniner

    I knew that one image in Bad Universe was incorrect! (with the ejected dust orbiting the asteroid, in place) But was looking for a suitable explanation. Talking about coming from the horse’s mouth itself…

    I mean, “Holy… smokes!”

  24. I’m sure there’s more fun stuff like this out there, but it doesn’t appear as nifty from here because it’s at an angle to us, eh?

  25. Merijn

    Holy Haleakala[*] what a beauty is that! First thought:’rocket?’ then, seeing all those background galaxies, what, so dark!? WT* is that… but thank you for explaining. Wow, that we have detectors that can be directed so precisely for 33 minutes, with such sensitivity to be able to see this… incredible!
    What an achievement on the part of HST and astronomy, and the fact that, in 2010, we can fully comprehend what goes on there, that gives me goosebumps. Reality is so cool and interesting :)

    [*] Yes I use that phrase IRL also, even though I’m Dutch, and explain pointing to Bad Astronomy and Bad Universe in the process. Nice marketing eh?

  26. David


    Technically it’s diffraction.

  27. Your Name Here

    Now that’s incredible.

  28. kuhnigget: as a very short sighted person, when looking at bright point sources without my glasses on I frequently *do* see refraction patterns. Unfortunately given that the human eyeball is a lump of squishy goo with questionable optical properties what I actually see is a shimmering blob full of little dark flecks, which squirms about whenever I move my eyes or blink.

    I am *so* looking forward to The Future, when I can get my eyeballs replaced with something that actually works (and, for example, isn’t limited to a measly single octave).

  29. Messier Tidy Upper @16 asks: I presume its out of range of even high end amateur CCD equipment?

    That would be a yes. It may be out of range of the other cameras on Hubble, even. The repaired ACS has about 4 electrons of noise per pixel (slightly better than what it had before it failed originally), which is about as good as it gets. The CCD is, first of all, huge (about 4 inches on a side), and second of all, kept at something around -80°C. by thermoelectric coolers, to reduce the dark current. And when we fixed it we changed the readout to dual-slope integration, which squeezes that last ounce of noise performance out of the detector. (It takes 104 seconds to read out one 16 megapixel frame!)

    Wide Field Camera 3 is newer, but ACS is still best for this kind of low-light image. Just looking at it here, I see what looks like noticeable video noise, which means it’s probably only using a tiny fraction of the detector’s dynamic range. So this wacky star is clearly very very low surface brightness. A bigger primary mirror would improve the image, but on Earth you’d be fighting sky glow and air turbulence, so this is probably the best we (humanity) can do right now.

  30. This isn’t the first star-generated spiral found in the sky: Have a look at Wolf-Rayet 104 where you can even see the “sprinkler” spin in a real little movie.

  31. Nick

    Holy Haleakula!!!

    (if I’m allowed to use that expression)

  32. Observer

    Another factor is that this appears to be aligned virtually perfectly normal to our line of sight so that it appears as a nearly circular feature — if, as almost all other similar objects would probably be, it were oblique to our line of sight, it might not be so readily visible, or at least as identifiable as what it is. Maybe there are more to see, but they’re just a lot harder to pick out?

  33. Trebuchet

    And they were going to let Hubble die? To me, it’s worth keeping the shuttle fleet going just to be able to service it once in a while. The Webb telescope will be pretty awesome, once it gets launched, but it doesn’t operate in the same wavelength and can’t be upgraded.

  34. Arawn


    sorry couldn’t resist.
    that is an amazing picture, so many mysteries out there to find still…

  35. UniqueElectron

    > As the two stars swing around each other, the wind from the carbon star doesn’t expand in a sphere. Instead, we see a spiral pattern as the material expands.

    I don’t understand this explanation. The arms would seem to represent the most dense areas. But if the other star just blocks the expansion of whatever carbon matter that happens to hit it, the arms should rather be holes, void of matter.

  36. Trololo

    @David Given:
    Even if that becomes a possiblity, wouldn’t the brain need a bit of reengineering as well? Somehow I doubt that the brain is be able to interpret visual information beyond the bandwith that the normal squishy ball of goo (ie. the eyeball) is able to deliver.

  37. froonium

    The Phantom Pinwheel
    The Spectral Spiral
    The Binary Boogeyman
    The Fantasy Star
    The Carbon Chimera

    meh, best I can do in 10 minutes

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    @32. Johnny Vector : Thanks. :-)

    That’s what I figured – not that I have any high-end gear to observe with anyhow.

    @36. Trebuchet :

    And they were going to let Hubble die? To me, it’s worth keeping the shuttle fleet going just to be able to service it once in a while. The Webb telescope will be pretty awesome, once it gets launched, but it doesn’t operate in the same wavelength and can’t be upgraded.

    I agree. I wish NASA would reconsider & at least boost Hubble into a high stable orbit so they keep the option of reviving open rather than just destroying it as is currently planned. :-(

  39. Mikegem

    We have to call this the SpinDizzy (thank you, James Blish)!

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 33. Dan Fischer Says:

    This isn’t the first star-generated spiral found in the sky: Have a look at Wolf-Rayet 104 where you can even see the “sprinkler” spin in a real little movie.

    Yes, the BA has a great post on WR-104 – & more specifically the very remote but potential threat it poses to us if it produces a Gamma Ray Burst here :

    Come to think of a “star-generated spiral” could describe a spiral galaxy too couldn’t it? 😉

    (Okay you’d need some gas and dust and a supermassive black holes to generate one too.)

  41. pembo

    frakin cool!!!
    I love the pics u find.

  42. Joel Spoon


    I love reading your blog but my eye surgery has left me with difficulty seeing the colors of your links. They look beige, but I’m not exactly sure. On the white background, they look very faint. At the expense of sounding like an ass, is it possible that they could be darkened or changed to a blue or red?

  43. Anchor

    Phil, I’m inclined to think that the bright star off to the right is, as you tentatively suggest, responsible for the gradation of illumination across the spiral. The alternative, offered by the astronomers who studied it, that the spiral is illuminated mostly if not exclusively by general galactic starlight cannot account for the very noticeable fall-off of the brightness seen across the object. Consider that while it is certainly an impressive third of a light-year across, it is still well over 20,000 ly from core of our galaxy: if it’s only some 3000 ly from us, it’s in our backyard as far as the galaxy is concerned (regardless of which direction it is located from our vantage, a point you don’t mention).

    The inverse-square law governing how light falls off with distance from the source indicates that whatever is causing the variation in brightness across the spiral must be much closer to it than the center of the galaxy, which would illuminate the entire spiral EVENLY. The only way to account for the interpretation that galactic starlight WAS exclusively responsible, then, is to require that the material associated with the spiral is significantly optically thick, that is, carrying a certain measure of opaqueness so that it absorbs much of the light AND to require that the plane of the spiral system is almost in line with the galactic center (the putative light source responsible for the variation seen) so that a gradual ‘shadowing’ effect in the material toward the source of illumination mimicks the inverse-square fall-off.

    But the galacic core subtends a very wide area, up to 30 DEGREES, making it even harder to accept that the resulting DIFFUSE light from the galactic core can account for any shadowing effect, whatever the orientation of the spiral disk with respect to the galactic core: light from the vast core would still illuminate the whole thing evenly. Yet a nearby point-source of illumination is better suited to any shadowing effect if the spiral’s plane happens to be aligned to it!

    What is more unlikely: that a relatively nearby bright star contributes much if not most of the illumination and the observed fall-off of brightness across the disk, mediated by the inverse-square law, which happens to be favorably satisfied by the definite existence of such a potential source of illumination in exactly the right position, or that a much larger, more diffuse, and far more distant source of illumination causes it?

    As you and the astronomers point out, this is a very faint object, so it is certainly not out of the question that a significant PART of the illumination CAN come about from reflected galactic starlight (there are other fine examples of nebulous objects that are thought to be illuminated almost entirely by general starlight, although I cannot recall examples off hand) but the fall-off of illumination seen in this one just can’t be explained by that alone.

  44. @ David #29.

    Well, that’s what my brain typed! Damn fingers, have a mind of their own! Thanks for the save.

    @ David Given #31:

    Well, until I had Lasik surgery I was in the same boat, but my fuzzy blobs never had clear spikes at 90° intervals. More like cartoon sun rays equally spaced all around the circumference of the blobs.

  45. speedlimit186k

    @IMForeman, #4
    Thank you very much for that. XD

    Maybe if we keep Hubble aimed at it for a while we’ll get to see the prophets/worm hole aliens visit Bajor. Or maybe Webb could do it.

  46. utkarsh

    Awesome. simply…

  47. Stargazer

    I think it’s weird that we can’t afford to keep Hubble and JWST at the same time. We can afford much, much more when the militaries of this world want funding. Obviously we have the resources, it’s that our priorities are messed up.

  48. luk3Z

    We need to go to the moon and build some telescopes ASAP 😛

  49. hognoxious

    @ questionatic

    Do you see bars like in the photo, or is it more like colored halos/fringes around bright lights? I had the latter when I had conjunctivitis – I assume it’s chromatic aberration caused by the changed RI of the tears.

    I’d suggest a visit to the doctor if it continues.

  50. redc

    Now…if you were to find yourself on a planet situated between these stars, how would the spiral look from the planet surface? Maybe like the spiral seen in Norway, South Africa and Australia??

    If you look closely at the pic you’ll see the gases (?) between the two stars, almost as if one is feeding of the other. have a look at


  51. Björn Róbertsson

    Playing with this picture (colours), gives the impression of at least 6 circles in a slightly elliptical pattern, with an object to the right seeming to be in the path of the outermost circle. Also, right of the bright star, there is a orange object which has a huge cloud which appears to affect the bright star.

  52. Nigel Depledge
  53. Dr. HotSalt

    Wow, that’s so many kinds of cool I can’t list them all! My screensaver is mostly Hubble images of planetary nebulae; if you don’t mind I’m going to put that picture in with them. Well, even if you do mind…

  54. =mew=

    Astronomy is cool but it makes my head hurt! Thanks for sharing this neat piece of info…

  55. BigBob

    To me, that’s one of the best astro images I’ve ever seen, (and you’ve shown us a lot Phil). I just love the dynamics of it. So by my understanding, it’s been turning for at least 3500 years. Can we find another one that’s been turning for over 10,000 years and ask the fundies how it got there? Though I realise a good old face-on spiral galaxy would do the trick too.
    Edited to add: I just loaded the image into Paintshop Pro, enhanced contrast and sharpened the image and I count at least 7, possibly 8 spirals.

  56. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    “The Bajoran wormhole!” (#4, #10)

    Of course! What else? Everything great deserves a famous nickname.
    So what if it is’nt a wormhole #8? Everyone knows that.
    Everybody knows it is a Planetary Nebula.
    You know where that designation comes from, “Messier Tidy Upper”? ;^)

  57. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    Phil, can you please cut the object from a high-pixel image and photoshop out that ugly star spike, which isn’t there in reality? That would make a great picture. Thank you, man.

  58. Looks very much like the death spiral of a test rocket, too.

  59. Persnickydietz

    That is awe-inspiring! What a gorgeous image. How cool that its orientation is such that we see it essentially face-on.

  60. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    Phil, there’s more goodies to see in this image: look at the twisted galaxy in the lower right corner. And what are the 4 “stars” halfway the downward spike of the star, could that be a lensed star or galasy? Then what object is causing the gravitational lensing?

  61. Chris A.

    @Messier Tidy Upper (#16):

    “Do we know if the Ghost Spiral Star is a Mira long period variable or any other sort of variable for that matter?”

    Most carbon stars are variables, typically semi-regular, long period variables, not Miras.

  62. Julian Klappenbach

    Is it possible that the spirals are the product of a jet? If the star is rotating fast enough, it should generate a magnetic field strong enough to concentrate the solar wind into a jet. Add a second, much slower axis of rotation perpendicular to the disc, and you spin the jet to produce a spiral.

  63. jaranath

    Has Charybdis been suggested as a name yet?

  64. jay

    its the secret space program thats bringing freedom and democracy to other starsystems

  65. As 26. Mecandes, 35. Observer and 70. Persnickydietz have pointed out, our vantage seems to be nearly on-axis with the binary co-orbit giving us a top-down (or bottom-up) view. If their co-orbit axis were close to perpendicular to our perspective the interference pattern would probably look more like parentheses or the lines we draw to represent magnetic forces.

    Most systems in our galaxy seem to adopt orbital planes similar to the galactic rotational plane. The plane of co-orbit for this particular binary system is near perpendicular to the galactic plane. That contrary co-orbital axis could make this observation unique combined with the other uncommon components. This may be the only binary carbon spiral we see (as a spiral) for the next 10 or 100 thousand years. Right?

    38. UniqueElectron Says:
    “But if the other star just blocks the expansion of whatever carbon matter that happens to hit it, the arms should rather be holes, void of matter.”

    One of the two stars is blowing off a constant carbon fog uniformly in all directions (correct me if I’m wrong). If it were not a binary, but instead a lone carbon star, it would be in the middle of a fairly uniform cloud. (other factors may have influence: rotation, magnetic poles…)

    If we add a second star, a stellar-mass gravity well, it will pull in the fog that is sprayed in it’s general direction, effectively erasing the fog from that side of the carbon star. If the two stars were stationary and not co-orbiting we would observe a two-thirds circle of carbon fog surrounding the carbon star and a on-third gap in the could on the side of the non-carbon star. Again, other factors apply so it would not be a perfect 2/3 circle. “Two-thirds” was semi-arbitrarily chosen for illustrative purposes and was not intended to be an accurate prediction.

    If we add in the co-orbit with the uneven distribution of carbon fog we get the sprinkler effect, the spiral.

    This phenomenon, compounded by our vantage point, is wondrous. I can’t see it effecting day to day life, but… just wow.

  66. UniqueElectron

    Thanks T Ray, makes sense.

  67. Beryl

    I actually mostly come here for the skeptical and political stuff, but then you show me something this cool, and I realize that I really should be coming for the astronomy. This blew me away.

  68. Björn Lammers

    Beautiful! And as awesome as it may look as a 2D object, it is even more mind-boggling to think of it as a dynamic 3D-object, as 78. T Ray points out.

  69. Jockaira

    Joel Spoon @ #46,

    If there is insufficient contrast between the background and the text, you can easily remedy this on any page by using your cursor to highlight the text, or click on the “Edit” field of your browser toolbar and then click on “Select All” from the dropdown menu. In most case this will provide increased contrast and easier reading.

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    Additionally, I pass along to DiscoverMagazine, the suggestion that you eliminate these grey fonts. Though they look stylish, they cause eyestrain and headaches among many. Classic black text on white is good; black text on light or medium green is even better, giving the best contrast with the least eyestrain. Why do you think they use green in casinos and card tables?

  70. Messier Tidy Upper

    @72. Chris A. Says:

    @Messier Tidy Upper (#16): “Do we know if the Ghost Spiral Star is a Mira long period variable or any other sort of variable for that matter?” Most carbon stars are variables, typically semi-regular, long period variables, not Miras.

    This one specifically though? Have we observed it to be variable?

    Also I could be mistaken here, but aren’t long period variables just a different name for Mira variables?

    @ 66. kroosing to ’42’ via ’37’ Says:

    “The Bajoran wormhole!” (#4, #10)
    Of course! What else? Everything great deserves a famous nickname.
    So what if it is’nt a wormhole #8? Everyone knows that.
    Everybody knows it is a Planetary Nebula.
    You know where that designation comes from, “Messier Tidy Upper”? ;^)

    I think so, yes.

    The name planetary nebulae comes from the slight resemblence planetary nebulae have to planets as seen through low-power old telescopes.

    I think this one around AFGL 3068 the Bajoran Wormhole star / Ghost Spiral Star / Charybdis (nice suggestion there #75. jaranath) is however not quite yet a fully fledged planetary nebula but instead a precursor protoplanetary one although I’m not 100% sure. This is because among other things there isn’t as yet a central white dwarf star as the star in question is still in the red giant stage of its life.

    Not sure where the name ‘Bajor’ comes from though if that’s what you meant. I’ve got a feeling its Jewish or something perhaps? Although that is just a very vague impression & not quite sure why I think that. Maybe because of some of the parallels between the fictional Bajorans and Jewish history?

  71. Messier Tidy Upper

    Some links that may be of interest here :


    Although that last one doesn’t say where the name itself came from.

  72. mike burkhart

    When I frist took a look at this I thought it was a Black Hole . Off topic for years I been puting my favorte sci fi movies in my coments well hears the ones I think stink : Laser Blast saw it on late night tv ,two Aliens blast there enemy but leave his laser gun its found by a teen nerd ,who uses it to get even and the power source in a neckless turns him in to an alien its stupid. Jason X ,frist mistake : turning a slasher movie series into a sci fi movie, second mistake : makeing it a ripoff of Alien, Jason Vorhes should have stayed at Camp Crystal Lake .Capercorn 1 : This is required viewing for all Apollo moon lading hoax belevers Nasa fakes a mission to Mars whene the ship burns up they try to kill the Atronauts Nasa should sue. Alien 3 the dumb one of the good Alien series .

  73. kroosing to '42' via '37'

    Thank you for your reply, Messier T.U.

    I have no idea where the StarTrek writers got the name Bajor from, though there are no doubt websites on the subject. Jewish though?

    I only meant to say that while “Bajoran Wormhole” may not be accurate, neither is the origin of “planetary nebula” because, as you rightly point out, in the old days it looked like something else. But we still use it. And hey, StarTrek it is well-loved fiction, even been the inspiration to do astronomy for many here, so nobody will be fooled by it.

    AFGL 3068 lies in Pegasus. The funny thing is, that on the galactic map the StarTrek writers use, the fictitious planet ‘Bajor’ lies in Pegasus too, 90° from the Sun in the galactic coordinate system, at about the same distance. Now how is that for a coincidence? What other clincher could we use then for this uniqe object?

  74. Brian Too

    @46. Joel Spoon,

    It may be a futile effort to try and get this site to accomodate your needs. You can try of course, but sites tend to cater to the majority and there are a host of design considerations involved.

    As a more direct, faster and potentially less disruptive option, why not change your browser settings? In IE 7, select Tools | Internet Options | General | Appearance | Colors. Turn off Use Windows Colors, then change your link color preferences (in the dialog, Visited and Unvisited) to whatever works for you.

    If you have viewing problems outside the browser as well, you may need to change your global display settings to one of the High Contrast options.

  75. Jeff

    “Get this: the astronomers who observed AFGL 3068 think the spiral is being lit by galactic starlight. That’s incredible. ”

    it is, and I’ve never heard of this before. It probably speaks to how effective the cloud absorbs radiation from the parent star in the wavelength we’re seeing.

    An analogy might be reflection nebula, but those are scattering radiation from nearby stars. This is much “cooler” as you say, because that galactic background light gives the glow an especially ghostly pall to it, added on top of the weird spiral shape.

    My students textbooks have limited space for Hubble images, but I really hope one of those mainline authors of undergrad texts sees this blog and adds it to his text next edition. It really is that unique, and should be in “standard texts” now, don’t you think?

  76. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^

    I have met too many people in my life who accuse scientists of being unable or too logical to experience “wonder” when confronted with a natural phenomenon. I counter this silly assertion with my own silly response (hoping they will realise how silly we both are): the “wonder” that a scientist experiences is far deeper than what a non-scientist experiences because a scientist understands what she is seeing and still is astonished.

    Well said & seconded by me. :-)

    Except in a way I don’t think your “silly”reply is that silly.

    Knowing some of the amazing things about the stars and other things you’re looking at I really think does add to the wonder.

  77. Absolutely breathtaking. I love the other galaxies floating in the background.

  78. Layman

    Despite what we are taught in school, celestial bodies (such as planets and stars, for example) do not orbit on a flat plane (in circles or ellipses). As our sun travels along its own vorticular path or ‘spiral arm’ of its own (spiral-shaped) galaxy, it drags the planets of the solar system with it in a vorticular (spiral-shaped) pattern motion. We are in fact travelling through space on a vorticular path that appears elliptical in 2d when viewed from above with the sun in the middle (a spiral from the side also appears like a wave form) So should this be treated as such a mystery or phenomenon?

  79. I saw a blue spiral traveling in the sky one night aroud may. Can it be something like this star? It was blue, and it took around 5 seconds to desapear in the sky. Very beautiful spirale.

  80. josh

    seeing as the star beside it seems approximately the same size and doesnt look like a red giant, wouldnt it be far closer?

    (i actually have no idea, im just curious and would like to know if there’s some error in my logic or assumptions)

  81. phillip

    Has anyone pondered the possibilities or calculated whether or not the system will saturate our quadrant of space with gamma radiation when the primary star goes nova?seems to me this could lead to an e.l.e.

  82. person

    The Anti-Spirals have shown themselves. Launch GURREN-LAGANN!!!


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