GALEX FINDS LINK BETWEEN BIG AND SMALL STELLAR BLASTS

Images (7) - scroll down page to view all images: GALEX-2007-04
 

1. Johnny Appleseed of the Cosmos

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

A new ultraviolet mosaic from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows a speeding star that is leaving an enormous trail of "seeds" for new solar systems. The star, named Mira (pronounced my-rah) after the latin word for "wonderful," is shedding material that will be recycled into new stars, planets and possibly even life as it hurls through our galaxy.

Mira appears as a small white dot in the bulb-shaped structure at right, and is moving from left to right in this view. The shed material can be seen in light blue. The dots in the picture are stars and distant galaxies. The large blue dot at left is a star that is closer to us than Mira.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer discovered Mira's strange comet-like tail during part of its routine survey of the entire sky at ultraviolet wavelengths. When astronomers first saw the picture, they were shocked because Mira has been studied for over 400 years yet nothing like this has ever been documented before.

Mira's comet-like tail stretches a startling 13 light-years across the sky. For comparison, the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is only about 4 light-years away. Mira's tail also tells a tale of its history Ð the material making it up has been slowly blown off over time, with the oldest material at the end of the tail having been released about 30,000 years ago.

Mira is a highly evolved, "red giant" star near the end of its life. Technically, it is called an asymptotic giant branch star. It is red in color and bloated; for example, if a red giant were to replace our sun, it would engulf everything out to the orbit of Mars. Our sun will mature into a red giant in about 5 billion years.

Like other red giants, Mira will lose a large fraction of its mass in the form of gas and dust. In fact, Mira ejects the equivalent of the Earth's mass every 10 years. It has released enough material over the past 30,000 years to seed at least 3,000 Earth-sized planets or 9 Jupiter-sized ones.

While most stars travel along together around the disk of our Milky Way, Mira is charging through it. Because Mira is not moving with the "pack," it is moving much faster relative to the ambient gas in our section of the Milky Way. It is zipping along at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour, relative to this gas.

Mira's breakneck speed together with its outflow of material are responsible for its unique glowing tail. Images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer show a large build-up of gas, or bow shock, in front of the star, similar to water piling up in front of a speeding boat. Scientists now know that hot gas in this bow shock mixes with the cooler, hydrogen gas being shed from Mira, causing it to heat up as it swirls back into a turbulent wake. As the hydrogen gas loses energy, it fluoresces with ultraviolet light, which the Galaxy Evolution Explorer can detect.

Mira, also known as Mira A, is not alone in its travels through space. It has a distant companion star called Mira B that is thought to be the burnt-out, dead core of a star, called a white dwarf. Mira A and B circle around each other slowly, making one orbit about every 500 years. Astronomers believe that Mira B has no effect on Mira's tail.

Mira is also what's called a pulsating variable star. It dims and brightens by a factor of 1,500 every 332 days, and will become bright enough to see with the naked eye in mid-November 2007. Because it was the first variable star with a regular period ever discovered, other stars of this type are often referred to as "Miras."

Mira is located 350 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, otherwise known as the whale. Coincidentally, Mira and its "whale of a tail" can be found in the tail of the whale constellation.

This mosaic is made up of individual images taken by the far-ultraviolet detector on the Galaxy Evolution Explorer between November 18 and December 15, 2006.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


2. It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's Mira!

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

A close-up view of a star racing through space faster than a speeding bullet can be seen in this image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer. The star, called Mira (pronounced My-rah), is traveling at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour. As it hurls along, it sheds material that will be recycled into new stars, planets and possibly even life.

In this image, Mira is moving from left to right. It is visible as the pinkish dot in the bulb shape at right. The yellow dot below is a foreground star. Mira is traveling so fast that it's creating a bow shock, or build-up of gas, in front of it, as can be seen here at right.

Like a boat traveling through water, a bow shock forms ahead of the star in the direction of its motion. Gas in the bow shock is heated and then mixes with the cool hydrogen gas in the wind that is blowing off Mira. This heated hydrogen gas then flows around behind the star, forming a wake.

Why is the wake of material glowing? When the hydrogen gas is heated, it transitions into a higher-energy state, which then loses energy by emitting ultraviolet light Ð a process called fluorescence. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer has special instruments that can detect this ultraviolet light.

A similar fluorescence process is responsible for the Northern Lights -- a glowing, green aurora that can be seen from northern latitudes. However, in that case nitrogen and oxygen gas are fluorescing with visible light.

Streams and a loop of material can also be seen coming off Mira. Astronomers are still investigating what these streams are, but they suspect that they are denser parts of Mira's wind perhaps flowing out of the star's poles.

This image consists of data captured by both the far- and near-ultraviolet detectors on the Galaxy Evolution Explorer between November 18 and December 15, 2006. It has a total exposure time of about 3 hours.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


3. Mira Soars Through the Sky

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

New ultraviolet images from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows a speeding star that is leaving an enormous trail of "seeds" for new solar systems. The star, named Mira (pronounced my-rah) after the latin word for "wonderful," is shedding material that will be recycled into new stars, planets and possibly even life as it hurls through our galaxy.

The upper panel shows Mira's full, comet-like tail as seen only in shorter, or "far" ultraviolet wavelengths, while the lower panel is a combined view showing both far and longer, or "near" ultraviolet wavelengths. The close-up picture at bottom gives a better look at Mira itself, which appears as a pinkish dot, and is moving from left to right in this view. Shed material appears in light blue. The dots in the picture are stars and distant galaxies. The large blue dot on the left side of the upper panel, and the large yellow dot in the lower panel, are both stars that are closer to us than Mira.

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer discovered the strange tail during part of its routine survey of the entire sky at ultraviolet wavelengths. When astronomers first saw the picture, they were shocked because Mira has been studied for over 400 years yet nothing like this has ever been documented before.

Mira's comet-like tail stretches a startling 13 light-years across the sky. For comparison, the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is only about 4 light-years away. Mira's tail also tells a tale of its history Ð the material making it up has been slowly blown off over time, with the oldest material at the end of the tail being released about 30,000 years ago.

Mira is a highly evolved, "red giant" star near the end of its life. Technically, it is called an asymptotic giant branch star. It is red in color and bloated; for example, if a red giant were to replace our sun, it would engulf everything out to the orbit of Mars. Our sun will mature into a red giant in about 5 billion years.

Like other red giants, Mira will lose a large fraction of its mass in the form of gas and dust. In fact, Mira ejects the equivalent of the Earth's mass every 10 years. It has released enough material over the past 30,000 years to seed at least 3,000 Earth-sized planets or 9 Jupiter-sized ones.

While most stars travel along together around the disk of our Milky Way, Mira is charging through it. Because Mira is not moving with the "pack," it is moving much faster relative to the ambient gas in our section of the Milky Way. It is zipping along at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour, relative to this gas.

Mira's breakneck speed together with its outflow of material are responsible for its unique glowing tail. Images from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer show a large build-up of gas, or bow shock, in front of the star, similar to water piling up in front of a speeding boat. Scientists now know that hot gas in this bow shock mixes with the cooler, hydrogen gas being shed from Mira, causing it to heat up as it swirls back into a turbulent wake. As the hydrogen gas loses energy, it fluoresces with ultraviolet light, which the Galaxy Evolution Explorer can detect.

Mira, also known as Mira A, is not alone in its travels through space. It has a distant companion star called Mira B that is thought to be the burnt-out, dead core of a star, called a white dwarf. Mira A and B circle around each other slowly, making one orbit about every 500 years. Astronomers believe that Mira B has no effect on Mira's tail.

Mira is also what's called a pulsating variable star. It dims and brightens by a factor of 1,500 every 332 days, and will become bright enough to see with the naked eye in mid-November 2007. Because it was the first variable star with a regular period ever discovered, other stars of this type are often referred to as "Miras."

Mira is located 350 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, otherwise known as the whale. Coincidentally, Mira and its "whale of a tail" can be found in the tail of the whale constellation.

These images were between November 18 and December 15, 2006.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


4.Evolution of Mira's Enormous Tail

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

This chart illustrates the length (top) and age (bottom) of a long comet-like tail of material trailing behind a speeding star called Mira (pronounced My-rah). Mira is located in the bulb-shaped structure at right, but it is very small compared to the tail and is difficult to distinguish. The large dot in the lower left corner is another star that is closer to us than Mira.

The unique tail, discovered by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer in ultraviolet light, is startlingly long, as indicated at the top half of the chart. It stretches about 13 light-years through space, which means that light would take 13 years to travel from one end to the other. For reference, the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri, is about four light-years away. If you could see Mira's tail in the night sky, it would span four full moons-worth of sky.

The bottom half of the chart demonstrates the age of material in the tail. The tail is made up of gas and dust that has been shed by Mira slowly over the past 30,000 years, with the oldest material being at the end (far left) and the newest material being closer to Mira (right). This material consists of oxygen and carbon and other elements that will ultimately make their way into new stars, planets and possibly even life.

The chart also lists a few historical events that happened at various points of time in the development of Mira's tail. For example, 26,000 years ago, when material near the end of Mira's tail was just being released, Neanderthals had recently died out.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


5. Anatomy of a Shooting Star

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

A close-up view of a star racing through space faster than a speeding bullet can be seen in this image from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer. The star, called Mira (pronounced My-rah), is traveling at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour. As it hurls along, it sheds material that will be recycled into new stars, planets and possibly even life.

In this image, Mira is moving from left to right. It is visible as the pinkish dot in the bulb shape at right. The yellow dot below is a foreground star. Mira is traveling so fast that it's creating a bow shock, or build-up of gas, in front of it, as can be seen here at right.

Like a boat traveling through water, a bow shock forms ahead of the star in the direction of its motion. Gas in the bow shock is heated and then mixes with the cool hydrogen gas in the wind that is blowing off Mira. This heated hydrogen gas then flows around behind the star, forming a wake.

Why is the wake of material glowing? When the hydrogen gas is heated, it transitions into a higher-energy state, which then loses energy by emitting ultraviolet light -- a process called fluorescence. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer has special instruments that can detect this ultraviolet light.

A similar fluorescence process is responsible for the Northern Lights -- a glowing, green aurora that can be seen from northern latitudes. However, in that case nitrogen and oxygen gas are fluorescing with visible light.

Streams and a loop of material can also be seen coming off Mira. Astronomers are still investigating what these streams are, but they suspect that they are denser parts of Mira's wind perhaps flowing out of the star's poles.

This image consists of data captured by both the far- and near-ultraviolet detectors on the Galaxy Evolution Explorer between November 18 and December 15, 2006. It has a total exposure time of about 3 hours.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


6. Supersonic Bullet

+Low res JPEG +Full res JPEG
Bullet shock

A bullet traveling through air at about 1.5 times the speed of sound can be seen in this image. When a moving object breaks the sound barrier, a shock wave and often turbulence are created. In this image, the curved line at the nose of the bullet is a shock wave. Other shock waves can be seen alongside the bullet, and a turbulent wake trails behind it.

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer captured an image of a racing star, called Mira, that resembles this bullet photo. The ultraviolet image shows a gigantic shock wave, called a bow shock, in front of the star, and an enormous, 13-light-year-long trail of turbulence in its wake. Nothing like this tail has ever been seen before.

This image was created using an instrument called a shadowgraph.

Image courtesy Andrew Davidhazy/Rochester Institute of Technology
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)


7. Mira's Tail There All Along

+Low-res JPEG +Full-res JPEG +Full-res TIFF
Mira

NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer discovered an exceptionally long comet-like tail of material trailing behind Mira Ð a star that has been studied thoroughly for about 400 years. So, why had this tail gone unnoticed for so long? The answer is that nobody had scanned the extended region around Mira in ultraviolet light until now.

As this composite demonstrates, the tail is only visible in ultraviolet light (top), and does not show up in visible light (bottom). Incidentally, Mira is much brighter in visible than ultraviolet light due to its low surface temperature of about 3,000 kelvin (about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Galaxy Evolution Explorer, one of NASA's Small Explorer class missions, is the first all-sky survey in ultraviolet light. It found Mira's tail by chance during a routine scan. Since the mission's launch more than four years ago, it has surveyed millions of galaxies and stars. Such vast collections of data often bring welcome surprises, such as Mira's unusual tail.

The visible-light image is from the United Kingdom Schmidt Telescope in Australia, via the Digitized Sky Survey, a program affiliated with the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/POSS-II/DSS/C. Martin (Caltech)/M. Seibert(OCIW)
Text credit: W. Clavin (JPL)