Revealed: Ghostly shape of the 'coldest place in the universe' sheds new light on the death throes of sun-like stars

  • Eerie glow of the Boomerang Nebula was shown by the ALMA telescope
  • Nebula is -272°C - even colder than background glow from the Big Bang
  • Earlier observations by Hubble suggested it had a lopsided 'bow tie' shape
  • Astronomers now believe the twin lobes may have been a trick of the light

By Ellie Zolfagharifard

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The eerie ghost-like shape of the ‘coldest place in the universe’ has been revealed by astronomers.

With a crisp temperature of -272°C, the Boomerang Nebula it is even colder than the -270°C background glow from the Big Bang.

Earlier observations of the nebula showed it to be lopsided, which is how it got its name. The Hubble Space Telescope later revealed a bow-tie-like structure.

The Boomerang Nebula

The Boomerang Nebula has revealed its true shape. The background blue structure, as seen in visible light with the Hubble Telescope, shows a double-lobe shape with a narrow central region. ALMA's resolution reveals the nebula's more elongated shape, as seen in red

The new image, taken using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile, reveals how Hubble may have been wrong.

According to ALMA astronomers, and the twin lobes seen in Hubble image may in fact be a trick of the light.

 

The finding could help scientists better understand how a star such as our sun will behave in its final death throes.  

‘What seemed like a double lobe, or “boomerang” shape, from Earth-based optical telescopes, is actually a much broader structure that is expanding rapidly into space,’ said Raghvendra Sahai, a researcher and principal scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Boomerang Nebula

The Hubble Space Telescope caught the Boomerang Nebula in these early images. According to ALMA astronomers, the twin lobes seen in this Hubble image may in fact be a trick of the light

The Boomerang Nebula is located about 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus.

It is a relatively young example of an object known as a planetary nebula, which, contrary to their name, are the end-of-life phases of stars like our sun.

What remains at their centres are white dwarf stars, which emit intense ultraviolet radiation that causes the gas in the nebulae to glow with brilliant colours.

The Boomerang is a pre-planetary nebula, representing the stage in a star's life immediately preceding the planetary nebula phase.

Over the last 1,500 years, nearly one and a half times the mass of our Sun has been lost by the central star of the Boomerang Nebula in an ejection process known as a bipolar outflow.

At this stage, the nebula is seen by starlight reflecting off its dust grains.

ALMA array

The new image was taken using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (pictured) in Chile. ALMA is an international partnership between Europe, the United States, Canada, East Asia and the Republic of Chile

THE BOOMERANG NEBULA

The Boomerang Nebula is a young planetary nebula and the coldest object found in the Universe so far.

With a crisp temperature of -272°C, the Boomerang Nebula it is even colder than the -270°C background glow from the Big Bang.

Keith Taylor and Mike Scarrott called it the Boomerang Nebula in 1980 after observing it with a large ground-based telescope in Australia.

The -272°C temperature was calculated by seeing how it absorbed the cosmic microwave background radiation

The Boomerang is a pre-planetary nebula, representing the stage in a star's life immediately preceding the planetary nebula phase.

Over the last 1,500 years, nearly one and a half times the mass of our Sun has been lost by the central star of the Boomerang Nebula.

The outflow of gas from this particular star is expanding rapidly and cooling itself in the process.

The -272°C temperature was calculated by seeing how it absorbed the cosmic microwave background radiation.

‘When astronomers looked at this object in 2003 with Hubble, they saw a very classic “hourglass” shape,’ said Dr Sahai.

‘Many planetary nebulae have this same double-lobe appearance, which is the result of streams of high-speed gas being jettisoned from the star.

‘The jets then excavate holes in a surrounding cloud of gas that was ejected by the star even earlier in its lifetime as a red giant.’

ALMA's unprecedented resolution revealed a more elongated cloud of cold gas that is roughly round.

The researchers also discovered a dense lane of millimetre-sized dust grains surrounding the star, which explains why this outer cloud has an hourglass shape in visible light.

Boomerang nebula

Hubble took this image in 1998. It shows faint arcs and ghostly filaments embedded within the diffuse gas of the nebula's smooth 'bow tie' lobes. The image was exposed for 1000 seconds through a green-yellow filter. The light in the image comes from starlight from the central star reflected by dust particles

The dust grains have created a mask that shades a portion of the central star and allows its light to leak out only in narrow but opposite directions into the cloud, giving it an hourglass appearance.

The new research also indicated that the outer fringes of the nebula are beginning to warm, even though they are still slightly colder than the cosmic microwave background.

This warming may be due to the photoelectric effect - an effect first proposed by Einstein in which light is absorbed by solid material, which then re-emits electrons.

‘This is important for the understanding of how stars die and become planetary nebulae,’ said Dr Sahai.

‘Using ALMA, we were quite literally and figuratively able to shed new light on the death throes of a sun-like star.’



 

The comments below have not been moderated.

What a mighty GOD we serve.

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Looks like 'ecto' from moshi monsters

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SOme DAYS I am not so frightened

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Coldest place in the universe that we know of.There must be colder places that we dont know of as the universe is so large and clusters of galaxies beyond our local neighbourhood will keep their secrets.

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if it drop one more degree the universe will cease to exist. everything will freeze, light cant travel, and electricity cant flow , and time stops . there is just enough heat to allow the universe to exist

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If I remember correctly, Edinburgh University Physics Department achieved a temperature even colder than this in their low temperature Physics lab. They got within a fraction of a degree of 0 Kelvin which is -273.16 C. So the coldest place in the Universe may well be somewhere on Earth.

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Next week, watch out for news stories that this object used to be even colder, but is being affected by climate-change.

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Wow.

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Geordie, (surprisingly) in Newcastle - the reason -272 degrees is so cold, is that -273.27 deg C (roughly) is absolute zero. Meaning, there is no such temperature as -274C. I have never understood how these temperatures are measured so far away though. Fscinating, and yes, I believe it.

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Strange. The writer can get "ALMA" correct but not "NASA". Why? (Not smarter than an 8 year old)

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The DM's styleguide uses Nasa not NASA. Nothing to do with accuracy, just the publication's preference

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Nasa is perfectly acceptable as has been proved to you Patrick. You're just a troll, go find a bridge to play under.

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Absolute nonsense !!!

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Well, for some people the universe doesn't extend past sitting on the sofa & stuffing crisps crisps in their mouths.

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You are all arguing with some that has the username as Geordie, and is from newcastle. Dont let him bring you down to his level, he will beat you with experience.

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