Every now and again I see something so simply stunning that it leaves me speechless.
OK, I’m kidding; I’m never speechless. But this really is flipping amazing.
Tell me: which of these two pictures below is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the nebula Sharpless 2-106, a massive young star blasting out jets of gas, and which is a painting by my delightful space artist friend Lucy West?
… or …
You might be forgiven if it’s not easy to tell. Of course, the one on the bottom has Lucy’s signature on it, making this task somewhat easier. But seriously, if I showed you just the art itself, you’d have a hard time telling which is which. FYI, it’s acrylic on canvas, and is 30" by 48".
Lucy is seriously good. I met her at SpaceFest IV and we hit it off instantly – she’s smart, funny, and holy cow, what an amazing artist. When she posted that photo of her painting on Facebook, I immediately asked her if I could put it up here. Wow.
And she picked a heckuva target to paint. Sharpless 2-106 is a complex, gorgeous nebula, which I explained in detail in an earlier post. If you want – and you do – here’s a higher-res version of the Hubble shot, and Lucy has a somewhat bigger shot of her painting on her website. She also has a look at the process she did to make the painting , too, which is fascinating.
Do yourself a favor, and do what I do: surround yourself with smart, talented friends. They make life far more interesting, and far more fun to live.
Image credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Lucy West (used by permission)
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.
I have a fondness for bipolar nebulae: double-barreled gaseous clouds formed when stars are born, and sometimes as they age and die. I’ve seen a lot of them, and studied a lot of them, so I was surprised to see this image from the Gemini North telescope of a BPN I’m not that familiar with, called Sharpless 2-106:
Oooo, pretty! Sharpless 2-106 is about 2000 light years away, located in a region of the galaxy known for birthing stars. The nebula is only about two light years across — small for a star-forming region, but still over 2,000 times bigger than our entire solar system!
Deep in the middle of the cloud is a star struggling to be born. It may have about 15 times the mass of the Sun, big enough to put it squarely into the "massive star" category. It’s flooding the nebula with ultraviolet radiation, causing the gas to glow. Different atoms glow at characteristic colors, allowing us to identify what elements are present, at what quantities, and even at what temperatures. In this case, special filters were used to pick out the elements helium (purple), hydrogen (red), oxygen (green), and sulfur (blue). The result is not really a true-color image — it’s not what your eye would see if you were out there floating around — but it’s close. Amazingly, to me, each filter was exposed for only 15 minutes, resulting in a one-hour total exposure time for this image!
[Note: the purple glow surrounding that bright star is just an internal reflection, light scattering around inside the telescope. That's most likely a bright foreground star blasting out more light in the purple filter than the others; it doesn't mean that star has a giant shell of helium around it!]
The nebula is double-lobed because the star is probably surrounded by a thick disk of material: gas, dust, silicates and other junk swirling around that forms the star itself (and perhaps planets, though we can’t tell in this case because there’s simply too much stuff there obscuring our view). A typical disk is on the order of the size of our solar system, so is invisibly tiny in this image.
But the star is blowing out material too in a stellar wind. It gets stopped by the equatorial disk, so it can only blow up and down, above and below the disk, forming these two great lobes that stretch for trillions of kilometers.
If we compare this image to one taken in the infrared by Subaru, we learn even more:
Like the Orion Nebula picture the other day, the IR image shows that a cavity is being carved out the surrounding gas, most likely from the winds from that massive star. Streamers of gas can be seen on the left, probably formed as the outflowing gas slams into dense knots of surrounding material, a bit like a sandbar that forms when water flows around a patch of sand. You can also see lots more stars than in the optical image, including many bright ones you don’t see at all in the optical. The thick dust surrounding Sharpless 2-106 blocks the optical light from stars, but IR can pierce that veil and reach our telescopes, showing us the hidden treasures.
We see bipolar nebulae all over the place… I have another one I’ll be telling you about soon, one of my very favorite objects in the whole sky. If you’ve been reading my blog for more than a couple of weeks you’ve already seen it, probably without even knowing it. But that’s the only hint I’ll give for now. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you all about it. Promise!
Until then, soak in the beauty of this nascent star, which, in a few million more years, will blow away the tattered remnants of its cocoon, and emerge as another bright blue-white star to light up our galaxy.