A glowing bubbly bauble in space

By Phil Plait | July 25, 2011 2:00 pm

Look, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve spent my whole life as an astronomer, so I’ve seen pretty much every big, bright object there is in the sky.

However, "pretty much" != "all". It’s still possible to surprise me, and folks, let me tell you: the Gemini telescope’s observation of the nebula Kronberger 61 did just that!

Wow! [Click to ennebulenate.] It looks like a buckeyball or a soccerball; my wife pointed out it looks like the shape you get when you use a bubble maker to make a bunch of bubbles all stuck together. Kn 61, as it’s called, is actually a planetary nebula, the gas flung off by a star like the Sun as it dies. You can get the details (along with many pretty pix) of how this works in a recent post of mine. In a nutshell, when a star runs out of useable hydrogen fuel in its core, it expands into a red giant and expels a huge wind of gas. This strips away the outer layers of the star, revealing the hot, dense core. Ultraviolet light from that star then lights up the surrounding gas, making these gorgeous nebulae.

The exact mechanisms for this process, however, are still not clear. I studied planetary nebulae (so-called because they sometimes resemble planetary disks through small telescopes) when I was in grad school, and a big question then was how the creation of these things depends on whether the central star was solitary, like the Sun, or had a companion (or planets). This relationship is still not clear, in fact, which is where Kn 16 comes in.

This nebula happens to be in the field of view of Kepler, an orbiting observatory that’s looking for planets around other stars. It’s staring at about 100,000 stars, looking for dips in light from the stars that indicate orbiting planets that periodically block the stars’ light. The central star of Kn 61 — the blue dot in the middle of the cloud — is being examined to see if it’s a binary or not. Professional astronomers have partnered with amateurs to do this, and Matthias Kronberger is a Swiss amateur who discovered this beauty.

The image uses filters that select the light from ionized oxygen (emitted very strongly by such nebulae) and hydrogen. I love the barred spiral galaxy just adjacent to Kn 61; the planetary nebula is in our Milky Way galaxy, but that spiral is probably tens of thousands of times farther away.

The overall symmetry of the nebula is striking — in fact, it’s sphericity makes me inclined to think the star is not part of a binary; the centrifugal force of two stars revolving around each other tends to flatten such nebula and create bizarre shapes (see Related Posts below). The filaments creating the soccerball-like structure are probably due to the nebula expanding into surrounding gas, compressing it (or a faster wind from the stellar core that has caught up with and slammed into the slower-moving red giant wind). I’ve never seen any other planetary nebula that looks quite like this one though. It’s really fantastic, in the sense of the word "fantasy": ethereal, strange, and beautiful.

Image credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA


Related posts:

Tears of a dying star
The knotty Cat’s Eye halo
The beginning of the end for a star
Warm dusty rings glow around a weird binary star

Comments (37)

  1. Daisy

    So basically, it’s a lit-up sun fart!

  2. ThutoeMoks Aphiri

    Wow, astronomy at its best… I wana study astronomy but donltknw if it is worthy. Does it pay reasonable money (nt that I am being greedy)?

  3. Nice one, Phil. Thanks…This gives me my wonder-fix for today.

  4. Wayne Conrad

    I often wonder what such a nebula would look like if you were able to position yourself near it (say, 5 diameters away) and look at it with the unaided eye. Would glowing bands of light command your view? Or would it be diffuse or faint or otherwise not as exciting as it looks to us on Earth?

  5. WJM

    @Daisy, the universe, on an average, is a lit-up fart!

  6. Lawrence Lo

    Looks eerily organic.

  7. Josie

    Neato! Yet another astronomical comparison to what I get to see at work everyday. That bubble looks amazingly like a very cystic teratoma caused by undifferentiated stem cells (I advise not googling images for that if you are at all squeamish…not all teratomas are umm…that clean).

    The other thing I see every day is ‘galaxy in a petri dish’ . Growing cells in rotational culture makes little clusters of cells. if you alter the rotation the clusters develop little spiral arms.

    I really enjoy seeing similar forms under my microscope and then through a telescope. It gives me a comforting sense of perspective and continuity :)

  8. Thomas Siefert

    Somewhere in there is George Takei going: “Oh My”.

  9. Pete Jackson

    Fantastic picture, Phil!

    The number intrigues me; does this mean that this amateur, Kronenberg, has discovered at least 61 unique objects (objects having no other name) just by looking at the digital sky survey? Makes me wonder what the other ones are like.

    Oddly, clicking on the image gives a smaller one. Isn’t that innebulenating?

  10. Ha ha! @ Thomas Siefert!

  11. Adam

    I suspect it is intelligent, with gently ionized plasma acting as a neuronal current and stars acting as neurons. It is looking at us too.

  12. Is the blue star in the center of the nebula the core of the red-giant?

  13. Brian Too

    It’s the Zetarians! Run!!

    Er, Warp Factor 2 Mr. Sulu!

  14. John Sandlin

    So if this star is stripping, does that make the picture NSFW? Just wondering.

    jbs

  15. Jeff Fite

    @7, Josie: That was a really nice post. Thanks for sharing.

    @11 Adam: You may be on to something, there! The convolutions DO suggest the surface of some, er…otherworldly brain. Somebody get Josie a research grant and put her on the case!

  16. Beautiful nebula, mysterious origin, fascinating science. I love it! :-)

    Looking at the steering wheel-like appearence of the barred spiral right next to it perhaps we could call this the Airbag nebula? ;-)

    The overall symmetry of the nebula is striking — in fact, it’s sphericity makes me inclined to think the star is not part of a binary; the centrifugal force of two stars revolving around each other tends to flatten such nebula and create bizarre shapes (see Related Posts below). The filaments creating the soccerball-like structure are probably due to the nebula expanding into surrounding gas, compressing it (or a faster wind from the stellar core that has caught up with and slammed into the slower-moving red giant wind). I’ve never seen any other planetary nebula that looks quite like this one though.

    Could it be caused by the central star having a messed up system of exoplanets like Upsilon Andromedae where several massive exoplanets have severely inclined orbits?

  17. For a good diagram of the Upsilon Andromedae system* to see what I mean there, see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/05/24/nearby-planetary-system-is-seriously-screwed-up/

    with more on Upsilon Andromedae here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/10/21/sunburned-planet-turns-hot-face-away-from-star/

    via the BA blog and here :

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

    with photographic finderchart via Kaler’s ‘Stars’ website if folks are curious. :-)

    I’m thinking if the Kronberger 61 exoplanetary system was like that – or even more messed up with several massive gas giant planets in Pluto-like eccentric and steeply tilted orbits – could that explain the nebula’s shape?

    Has / could anyone model or calculate this?

    Such exoplanetary systems may be fairly rare although a number of exoplanets do appear to have odd even comet-like orbits (eg. HD 80606b,see BA blog ‘Weather sizzles on a planet that kisses its star’ posted January 28th, 2009 11:00 AM.) which could be a key factor couldn’t it?

    —————

    * Albeit a rather mistaken one of *our* solar system! Look close to our Sun to spot the mistakes. ;-)

  18. BTW. This reminds me of the mystery regarding the planetary nebula SuWt2 that the BA raised on this blog here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/06/05/one-ring-to-fool-them-all/

    back on the 5th June 2008.

    It was an odd nebula where a binary of sub-giant Sirian (type A) stars lie at the heart of the Planetary nebula rather than the expected white dwarf star.

    Please can you tell us BA if there has been any progress on that Planetary Nebula mystery at all?

    Also please, what do you think of my idea that it might be the result of a massive rapidly spinning star like Achernar, Regulus and Altair ( http://kencroswell.com/RegulusIsOblate.html ) spinning up so fast that it split in half resulting in the two white sub-giants immersed in the old shell of gas and dust emitted by a former B or even O type “shell star” – such as for example Zeta Tauri?
    ( http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/zetatau.html )

    Is that plausible, a reasonable suggestion in this case do you think?

  19. DrFlimmer

    Soccerball-shape? I think, there is hope after all for you Americans. :D

  20. Ganzy

    Wow that is beautiful. It reminds me of an image I saw of the
    Trinity test fireball.

    Is there any relationship between the poly-gloubalar dynamics of the expanding Kronberger and trinity spheres?

    If someone could tell me the correct terminology for what I am trying to describe, that would be appreciated too. Thanks.

  21. Rowan

    The mobile version of this site is broken, page 2 has no articles. Also the comment form is messed up. On iPhone 4.

  22. jennyxyzzy

    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ jennyxyzzy : True – but would you rather receive twelve “Noxious Thorny Stinkweeds” instead of a dozen roses or vice-versa? ;-)

    @ 19. Dr Flimmer : Wait till they find (and accurately describe) a cricket ball-shaped nebula – *then* we’ll be talking! :-D

    @12. Carson Myers asked : “Is the blue star in the center of the nebula the core of the red-giant?”

    I think so, yes, that’s the white dwarf or central planetary nebular star. It used to be the core of the red giant star which has now changed into a white dwarf as its outer layers have sloughed away.

  24. Ganzy
  25. Adam

    “…and expels a huge wind of gas”

    duherherher

  26. lqd

    What happens to the planets of a star that becomes a planetary nebula? If they aren’t gobbled up during the red giant phase, do they keep orbiting the white dwarf if the gravity is strong enough?

  27. Dr.T
  28. fintin

    It looks almost unreal, it’s fantastic.

  29. Amateur

    I was just wondering, does anyone have the RA/Dec for this object.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Sky Gazer : You’re right. It is indeed – I think the BA has already blogged on that one too if memory serves correctly. :-)

    @29. Amateur : “I was just wondering, does anyone have the RA/Dec for this object.”

    I don’t know either and would love to as well – plus the answer to what is Kronberger 61’s apparent magnitude?

    Can amateurs see it in average telescopes and average skies – does anyone know and care to enlighten us please?

    @26. lqd :

    What happens to the planets of a star that becomes a planetary nebula? If they aren’t gobbled up during the red giant phase, do they keep orbiting the white dwarf if the gravity is strong enough?

    Yes, I think they would. Fairly certain there is at least one white dwarf star known (& posisbly more) that has disrupted / destroyed an object orbiting it whicvh you would presume existed previously. Planets are pretty hard to totally destroy.

    The recent issue (2nd July 2011) of New Scientist magazine actually had an article on the possibility of habitable planets around white dwarf stars too which was titled “White Dwarf Worlds” (cover) or “Star lite” (given on the article itself, page 37) by Ken Croswell.

  31. Messier Tidy Upper
  32. John Sandlin

    So far the best location I can find is a patch of sky between Cygnus and Lyra centered on RA 19h 22m 40s and DEC +44 30′ 00″. But the patch of sky is pretty good size, almost 1 degree from that center in all directions.

  33. Amateur

    The patch of sky I can capture is only 5 arcmin X 5 arcmin. Which is a little bigger than Kr 61. That’s a big field to search. I’ve tried to find it online but none of the articles list where to find it. Hopefully it’ll pop up soon. Thanks for all your efforts, and thanks in advance whoever finds the exact RA/Dec.

  34. John Sandlin

    stan_ccd found the nebula and posted the coordinates in the yahoo group for ccd-newastro:

    http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ccd-newastro/message/69648

    So that you don’t have to go there just to get the coordinates, they are:

    RA: 19:21:39
    DEC: +38:18:57
    based on EPOC: 2000 coordinates

    Thanks go out to Stan!

    jbs

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