A giraffe's shocking neck

By Phil Plait | March 27, 2011 7:00 am

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer took its last image of the sky in February, 2011. But while it was active it surveyed the entire sky several times in the far infrared, so its data archive is a vast treasure trove just waiting to be dug into (hmmm, I should try to squeeze another metaphor into there).

Anyway, lookee what the astronomers found:

Cooool. Literally! That’s dust surrounding the star Alpha Camelopardalis, what appears as a fairly non-descript star in a faint, non-descript constellation. At least, to the eye. When seen in the IR, you get this shocking view. Also literally.

Alpha Cam is a massive, luminous star: 50 times as hefty as our Sun, and blasting out perhaps a million times as much energy. But it’s far away (3000 light years, maybe, the distance is not well-known) and behind a lot of dust, dimming our view. It’s barreling through space at a pretty good clip, and emitting a wind of subatomic particles as it does. This wind expands, slams into the surrounding dust, and sculpting it into this giant bow shock formation.

In this false color shot, red is gas and dust warmed to about 130K — that’s -140°C or -200°F! — so warmed is maybe not the best word. But it would be a lot colder if the star’s wind weren’t ramming through it. Green comes from dust at about 240K, or -33°C (-27°F).

Interestingly, the visible light picture is similar. This shot, from NASA, is sensitive to hydrogen gas. As the wind from the star rams the surrounding material, it carves a bubble on a much larger scale than shown in the WISE image.

One day, not too far in the future — a million years, give or take — Alpha Cam will blow, becoming a supernova. It’ll outshine Venus by a fair shot when it does, too. Material ejected in the tremendous explosion will scream outward at a good percentage of the speed of light, and when it hits that junk floating around the star, then we’ll really see a show!

I can wait, though.

Oh, and the title of this post? Camelopardalis is the constellation of the giraffe. So there!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team; NASA


Related posts:

Shocking star is shocking. Shocking, I say!
The Wonderful
When a star eats its own

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (16)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image & item here. Thanks WISE, BA. ;-)

    If folks want to view Alpha Camelopardalis this link :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/cam-t.html

    takes you to Kaler’s photographic finderchart. It’s just across from Capella.

    While if you want more info :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/alphacam.html

    &

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_Camelopardalis

    provide a couple of good starting points. :-)

    Incidentally, I think we’ve known about Alpha Cam’s bow shock bubble for some time, pretty sure I recall reading about it in an Astronomy magazine article a great many years ago.

    EDIT : Yes, indeed : “Bubbles in the Sky” article by Dave van Buren in the January 1993 issue of Astronomy magazine. (Hope its okay to recommend that here.) Turns out Alpha Cam’s bow shock was first spotted by the IRAS Infrared Astronomical satellite. :-)

  2. Zed

    I get this on my LJ feed, but the posts always wind up truncated. So, all I saw was just the first photo, and the little bit before it. I was all confused, because I thought that this was about Barnard’s Loop for a second.

    And then I actually clicked on the link to get here.

    That visible light picture is stunning, though. I can’t stop looking at it.

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Did the ancient Greeks /Romans frequently get their giraffe’s mixed up with their camels? ;-)

    The name seems odd. It’s also the Alpha star but NOT the lucida (brightest star) of its constellation which is Beta Camelopardalis – one of a number of such cases where the Alpha designation is misleading – but an interesting star nonetheless.

    Alpha Camelopardalis (4th mag. apparently~speaking) is located on a line between Capella and Polaris ie. “the North Star / Pole Star.” Too far north for me, alas. Adelaide latitude – 35 degrees South. If Alpha Cam ever gets above my horizon it isn’t by very much.

    So I’m not fussed if I don’t see Alpha Cam go supernova in my lifetime – neat though that’d be – but I’d very much prefer to see Eta Carinae detonate while I’m alive! As long as that doesn’t lead to death from the skies anyhow. ;-)

  4. I think “camelopardalis” literally means “camel leopard”.

  5. Jack M

    It’s fascinating to me that the near-perfect vacuum of interstellar space still has enough matter in it to act like a gas in some ways.

  6. Patrik

    Messier @3:

    It’s not that odd. Bayer did his work before the modern magnitude scale and accurate measurements so he used the original scale with integer steps (1-6). He also did’t alway use the brightest first rule.

  7. Georg

    Those Wise people in the link write:

    Astronomers believe runaway stars are set into motion either through the supernova explosion of a companion star or through gravitational interactions with other stars in a cluster.

    The latter is easy to see, but the first alternative seems a bit strange.
    Can a star really become accelerated by an exlosion nearby?
    I think the stars outer shell(s) would be blown away, but the heavy core would be not much affected.

  8. Carson Myers

    @6:

    I think it has to do with the angular momentum of the star at the time its companion went supernova – sort of like how if the sun just sort of winked out of existence, we’d be sent flying through interstellar space without anything to keep us in orbit.

  9. Patrik

    I’m not an expert but IIRC the mechanism suggested requires a closely orbiting (i.e. high velocity) pair of stars and a quick and massive mass loss in one of the stars. When this happends the pair is no longer gravatationaly bound and the stars shoot off.

  10. On the the tangent of Camel Leopard…David Mitchell does a wonderful riff on it. I highly recommend it.
    http://gu.com/p/2t3ne

  11. A minor nitpick, Phil… Camelopardalis is not the constellation of the giraffe. Camelopardus is the name of the constellation; Camelopardalis is its genitive.

  12. jess tauber

    I don’t wanna blow up,
    because if I did,
    I wouldn’t be an
    RV Tauri Cepheid

    JT
    after a giraffe of wine

  13. I make a point of talking about the Camel Leopard when I talk to groups at McCormick Observatory. The illustration that I show them from the 1600s shows that the illustrator had never seen a giraffe. Neck wasn’t long enough.

  14. Joseph G

    @ 10 Jess: I lol’d.
    Sirius. We should antelope to Vega :D

  15. jess tauber

    I’m much harder to ‘get’ than that- first I’ll need a couple of weeks at Westerlund I. Plenty of sunscreen, and a *really* good pair of shades. I hear the scenery is to die for. Really ‘rad’. And a great ‘photo’ op for any upcoming star. Too bad the night life is all but nonexistent.

    I *could* tempted into visiting the Arches Cluster, but they’re still a small operation and not completely set up for guests yet.

  16. Scott Davis

    Hey wait a minute, that’s no giraffe, that’s not even a mammal.

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