Epic tantrum thrown by 30 octillion ton baby

By Phil Plait | December 15, 2011 11:32 am

So you saw my gallery yesterday of gorgeous pictures from 2011, right? And then you read my post this morning where I whine about how Chandra releases an awesomely cool picture the day after I put up my gallery?

Right. So of course Hubble releases an image today that is so insanely amazing I hardly know where to start with it.

So I’ll start by showing it to you. Behold, Sharpless 2-106:

Are. You. Freaking. Kidding. Me? [Click to ennbulenate, and yes, you really want to.]

This devastatingly beautiful image shows the birth pangs of a massive star. Called IRS 4 (for Infrared Source 4; it was first seen in IR images), it’s the really bright star just below center where the two blue lobes come together. It’s a bruiser, an O-type star with at least 15 times the Sun’s mass — 30 octillion tons! — and is a staggering 10,000 times as bright. It’s still in the process of forming, but it’s nearly there.

Located about 2000 light years away, IRS 4 is surrounded by an enormous cloud of gas and dust that may have a mass as high as 25,000 times the mass of the Sun. When the star first ignited, fusing hydrogen into helium in its core, the vast amount of energy it started pouring out lit up the cloud in the immediate vicinity around it. Most of the cloud is still dark and cannot be seen here, but everything within a few light years of the star is being illuminated, if not ionized, by the fierce ultraviolet light from the star.

Generally, very young stars are still surrounded by the thick disk of material from which they formed. That’s true of IRS 4; the dark line on the left of the star is actually the shadow of that disk on the gas and dust around it.

At this point, things get weird.

As it happens, I’ve written about Sh 2-106 before, when a gorgeous ground-based picture of it from the Gemini North telescope was released (seen here, which I rotated and cropped to match the Hubble image). When I saw that Gemini image I thought it was relatively easy to interpret, but as I examined this new Hubble image, I started seeing things that were a bit confusing.

It’s very common to see two gigantic lobes on either side of a young star like this. The star is rapidly rotating, and that twists up its magnetic fields like two tornadoes tip-to-tip, blasting out energy and matter at incredibly high speeds in opposite directions. When I first saw these images, I figured that’s what we’re seeing. But then I wondered why the star itself isn’t centered between the two lobes. Look at it: if you were to draw a line down the middle of the two lobes from left to right, you’d expect the star to be on that line, but instead it’s well below it.

As far as I can figure out, there is still dark, dense material in the outer cloud that’s blocking our view a bit, throwing off the symmetry of what we see. It’s not that the star is lower than those lobes, it’s that the lobes do extend farther down, but they’re obscured by opaque stuff between us and them. We’re only clearly seeing the upper parts of those lobes. I’ll be honest and say I’m guessing a bit here; it’s not entirely clear this is the case but it just seems most likely.

But I was curious, so I started digging, and found out more. According to a paper I found, infrared observations of SH 2-106 indicate there are actually four lobes*!

In this diagram, we are on the left, and the arrow represents the direction we are looking. There are two lobes of matter streaming away from us on the far side of the star (labeled red; in the Hubble image one is to the left and the other to the right of the star) and one lobe moving toward us (labeled blue; to the right of the star in the Hubble image). To interpret their observations, the astronomers determined the fourth lobe is, for some reason, devoid of gas. The green cylinder is hot gas, and the entire structure is embedded in a much denser dark cloud of gas and dust.

As it happens, the two lobes to the right of the star in the Hubble image (in the model, the blue and red lobes on the bottom) are nearly superposed on top of each other from our perspective, so we see one big structure to the right of the star. But what happened to that lobe on the left that was aimed in our direction? It’s clear that the star IRS 4 was formed very near the edge of the dark cloud — if it were buried deeply, it wouldn’t be visible. So it’s possible that jet of material punched out through the edge of the cloud, and emptied itself of material. The other lobe to the right has also started erupting out of the edge, and may evacuate the gas over the next few centuries.

In the meantime, the other three jets are slamming into the surrounding material, compressing it and heating it. In their wakes are huge cavities, and turbulence from the fast-moving jets has created those incredibly lovely wisps and curlicues in the gas. And to attest to the power and might of this one star, the entire bipolar nebula is something like 2 light years in length: 20 trillion kilometers!

Soon — and by that, I mean in a million years or so — IRS 4 will settle down, more or less. It will become a big blue star, shining steadily for quite some time. But not too long: stars that massive don’t have long lives. They have a tendency to end violently and messily, exploding as supernovae, bright enough to outshine entire galaxies! When this happens to IRS 4, that material will expand outward at a fraction of the speed of light, slam into the all that junk floating around it… and then the fireworks will really begin.

Image credits: Hubble: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Gemini: Gemini Observatory/AURA; Diagram: Noel, C., Joblin, J. P., Maillard, and T. Paumard.


* Picard was right all along!



Related posts:

The gorgeous birth pangs of young stars
The coldly warm glow of star birth
When a star struggles to be free of its chrysalis
Spitzer peeks under a cradle’s blanket


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (57)

  1. Stunning image and it gives a good impression of the immense nature of this thing as well. Very nice.

  2. Firemancarl

    Wow, when ennubulated the picture I was amazed at the detail of the shock waves moving through the gas. Wow!

  3. Bram Floria

    “Ennbulenate?” Really? The term caused me to Googleate. Even a search engine top-rate couldn’t a definition regurgitate. So I cogitate and ruminate. Still nothing will formulate. Care to elucidate?

  4. Björn Lammers

    It’s hard to be awed every time you post a stunning picture, because you post so many of them, but this one does the job. Freaking awesome!

  5. fletch

    Set it as my desktop background, this is a very pretty pic.

  6. Christian Ready

    Ok, I have to admit I’m still a little confused by the geometry of the four lobes, and of the accretion disk that forms the shadow. Anyone else having a hard time visualizing this? Would like to see if I can build some kind of a 3d model of it, but I don’t have my head around it yet.

  7. Rob

    @ Bram Floria… +1.

  8. Libbie

    What Brian said — and I have a prodigious vocabulary. I admit to being flummoxed.

  9. pumpkinpie

    “So you saw my gallery yesterday of gorgeous pictures from 2011, right? And then you read my post this morning where I whine about how Chandra releases an awesomely cool picture the day after I put up my gallery?”

    Easy solution…don’t finalize the list until 2012!

  10. mang

    Considering the idea that the missing lobe would be closer to us than the star: It will appear to be darker than the lobe behind it, it will also block us from viewing much of the lobe behind it, and it would appear in the photo to be larger than the lobe behind it. When I look at the brownish matter on the left side of the star and consider the possibility that it might be the elusive missing left lobe. It appears, at least to me, a good possibility.

  11. The blue-white winglike lobes, reaching out from a reddish-yellow triangle of gas and dust with a bright star at the center …

    … it looks like a Christmas Tree Angel!

  12. David Murray

    They said it is still forming.. but since this picture is technically 2,000 years old I would think the star would be formed by now, right?

  13. RaginKagin

    Looks like an angel, good call tracer! I love these pics and the science behind them, great post!

  14. Christian Ready

    I’m not sure if the 3d model STScI did as part of the press release agrees with Noel, et al’s model or not. The southern lobe (on the right) clearly looks like a full half of an “hourglass” which I think is supposed to correspond to the lower red lobe. Is the “flattened” triangle shape at bottom center at the end of the video supposed to represent the blue lobe?

  15. nobody

    Phil, I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. Anyone would throw a tantrum if they made a list of top astronomy pics and then had 2 amazing ones show up the very next day. That doesn’t make you a baby.

    Also, maybe a bit chunky, but… 30 octillion ton?! You’re way too hard on yourself.

  16. d2

    Since nobody seems to use enbullenate but you, I vote it becomes jargon for ‘get rid of the spikey star-points filter artificiality’. Alternately, embullenate should be to pile on the BS.

  17. Geekoid

    *Strong Bad Astronomer* My star asplode! */Strong Bad Astronomer*

  18. Michael Wright

    When you see major events like this, it makes me wonder about us earthers arguing among ourselves on issues that seem so trite in the big picture of the universe.

  19. jb1

    Maybe he meant:

    E*nu”bi*late, v. t. [L. enubilatus, p. p. of enubilare to enubilate; e out + nubila clouds, fr. nubilis cloudy, nubes cloud.] To clear from mist, clouds, or obscurity. [R.] –Bailey.

  20. @16 nobody: I see what you did there 😀

  21. A spectacular image of stellar evolution in action! Thanks for sharing.

  22. Superluminous image & great write-up. Thanks. :-)

    So you saw my gallery yesterday of gorgeous pictures from 2011, right?

    Um, no? Not yet! Actually I’ve just gone back online after being busy with RL these last few days. That’s the next thing I’ll be looking at though! :-)

    And then you read my post this morning where I whine about how Chandra releases an awesomely cool picture the day after I put up my gallery? Right. So of course Hubble releases an image today that is so insanely amazing I hardly know where to start with it.

    Murphy’s law strikes again. That would be typical wouldn’t it?

    I hope you don’t discount these from going into your 2012 Best Astronomical images though. Maybe you could have best astronomical images of the half or even quarter year?

    It’s very common to see two gigantic lobes on either side of a young star like this.

    Very true although two gigantic lobes on the side of a star always makes me think of Eta Carinae – a blue hypergiant binary star which is simultaneously very young and so highly evolved it’s already nearing its hypernova end. That’s what being one of the highest mass stars in our Galaxy will do! 😉

    PS. Click on my name for a link to the‘ Astronomy Picture Of the Day’ image of Eta Carinae to see what I mean.

  23. Robin

    I never grow tired of our Universe. It offers a non-stop stream of stunning vistas that while making me feel so small, expands my mind and continuously piques my sense of wonder. Man I love this place.

  24. Chris

    Comet Lovejoy survives. See its passage on SDO’s website.

  25. Dave

    I got here via StumbleUpon, and by the title expected a video of a little fat kid crying. You win this round, science.

  26. scgvlmike

    For some reason I hear Patrick Stewart crying out, “THERE. ARE. -FOUR-. LOBES!”

  27. Chris

    @29 scgvlmike
    The Ferengi have four lobed brains.

  28. Nice analysis and explanation! Thanks Bad Astronomy!

  29. @29 scgvlmike: I had that thought too, but thought no one would know wtf I was talking about 😀

  30. Jason Q

    1) THERE! ARE! FOUR! LOBES! (Yeah, I thought that too…)

    2) What’s the rotational period of a star such as our subject that spins “quickly?”

    3) I have a fairly large vocabulary (large enough that people sometimes give me crap about it), and I have no effing idea what “ennbulenate” means. Maybe “ennebulanate?” That would work, I guess…

  31. Wombflash Forest

    @33. Jason Q, rotational period? Considerably faster than the Sun, I imagine, though I can’t at this moment put my finger on a specific figure. I keep thinking, that star though would be oblate, almost a disk at that mass and that rotational velocity. And that makes me think that’s got something to do with there being four lobes instead of two.

    Would make an interesting subject for a thesis, I’ve no doubt.

  32. Googling “ennebulenate” brings up not one but five different BA posts :)

  33. Donald

    Awesome picture! You say that the star might look offcentre because the bottom parts of the two back lobes are hidden. Might another solution be that we’re not looking at it directly in the plane of the lobes? If our viewpoint is slightly above the plane of the lobes, then the back two would angle away like a V with the star at the point of them. From looking at the picture the two blue clouds do seem to point at the star.

  34. Hamish

    I’m with Jason Q – I read it as ‘ennebulate’, to form a nebula.

  35. critter42
  36. thanks for the interesting (and enthusiastic!) explanation.

    this short vid from the hubble site you linked to gives an impression of the 3D structure:

    endless cool

  37. Nigel Depledge

    To all those puzzling over “ennebulate” –
    The BA is a master of neologisms, most of which mean “click the piccy to see a bigger version”. “Ennebulate” because it’s a piccy of a nebula.

    It’s all perfectly cromulent.

  38. You say, 2000 years ago? Would that mean that when Jesus resurrected, he was actually reborn as a star? Just kiddin’ 😉

  39. mammoth

    Stunning… One more thing that caught my eye is a bright red star on the bottom right corner in the picture. That seems more brighter than this. Which star is that ?

  40. Beautiful, beautiful image. I can almost hear the accompanying space music!

    I believe that jb1 in #20 has it right when he says that Phil very likely means enubilate [ http://www.websters-dictionary-online.com/definitions/Enubilate ]

  41. Anne

    Hello, gorgeous new desktop background!

  42. Brian

    What if the star in question isn’t the one we see? Look at the bottom light cone– if you follow it up, it seems to go straight to the middle of the cloud. It doesn’t stop at the bright star in the picture. Maybe the star itself is hiding behind gas?

  43. Mike T

    Very nice image. I have a fondness for the Sharpless objects, having had the privilege of having Prof. Sharpless as advisor for my undergrad senior thesis.

  44. #48 Mike: Cool!!

    For everyone who’s a fan of pictures of emission nebulae, here’s a great wiki entry, the Sharpless Catalog. It’s got some beautiful examples from said catalog.

  45. Greg B

    @42 Nigel

    Thank you good sir, I do love to embiggen my vocabulary. Cromulent indeed!

  46. VS

    The starburst effect in the image is ‘orribly tacky.

  47. Jon

    @Messier Tidy Upper:

    Eta Carinae, from the image in your name link ( http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap060326.html ), appears to have four lobes. Those perpendicular to our point of view are only visibly illuminated near the star, and give the impression of optical distortion rather than presence. That makes sense: again, from our point of view it’s side-lighting, where shadow dominates far more than it does in fore- or back-lighting.

    P.S. Great handle.

  48. Sekhmet

    that was happening 2,000 years ago… wish we could get (a lot) closer and see what it looks like “now.” te he he


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