Hubble spots burning plasma balls TWICE the size of Mars shooting out of a dying star
- The stellar oddity was captured in a system 1,200 light years from Earth
- Planet-sized blobs of plasma are believed to reach a blistering 9,400˚C
- It is thought the material is ejected from an unseen companion star
- Longer term observations may reveal a red giant evolving into a nebula
The Hubble space telescope has detected giant balls of burning plasma being fired out of a distant star system.
The balls of super-heated gas are around twice the size of Mars and appear to be coming from a nearby star in its twilight years.
What is puzzling astronomers is that the dying star, a red giant, likely doesn’t have enough material of its own left to produce the regular stellar ‘cannon fire’.
Hubble telescope images have captured balls of super-heated gas, around twice the size of Mars , which appear to be coming from a nearby dying star (illustrated)
The stellar oddity was captured in a star system 1,200 light years away.
Hubble’s images show the plasma blobs are speeding away from their mystery source at great speeds, equivalent to making the journey from Earth to the moon in just half an hour.
What’s more, these burning objects – believed to reach a blistering 9,400˚C (17,000˚F) – have been ejected at regular intervals of around once every 8.5 years for at least 400 years.
But they appear to be emanating from a bulging red giant called V Hydrae.
Nasa scientists believe the plasma originates from a nearby companion star, hidden from view
These types of stars are at the end of their lives, having exhausted the supply of hydrogen at their core, they swell to a massive size as they fuse the last of their fuel and shed off their outer layers into space.
Instead, Nasa scientists believe the plasma originates from a nearby companion star, hidden from view.
As the star orbits in an elliptical path, it edges close to the red giant once every 8.5 years. Once it strays close enough, material is sucked away and settles into a disc around the companion star.
This stable accretion disc acts as a launch pad for the plasma balls, when the distance between the two stars increases, the plasma blobs are sent spinning off into space at speeds of around half a million miles per hour.
CAPTURING STELLAR EVOLUTION IN ACTION
Nasa has used the Hubble telescope to peer into a distant star system 1,200 light years away.
Astronomers observed giant planet-sized blobs of plasma being fired out into space every 8.5 years.
By viewing the star over a number of years a decade apart, they were able to build up a longer term picture of the star system’s activity.
They believe that a dying red giant and its smaller companion are ejecting the plasma into space.
Once the plasma cools and expands it is no longer visible, unless observed at longer wavelengths than visible light.
Combining data from multiple telescopes over a number of years, the team is building a picture of knotty clumps of plasma which spread out over time, showing a red giant evolve into a whispy planetary nebula.
The observations may help to show the evolution of a dying red giant into a planetary nebula (pictured)
‘We knew this object had a high-speed outflow from previous data, but this is the first time we are seeing this process in action,’ said Raghvendra Sahai of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who led the study.
‘We suggest that these gaseous blobs produced during this late phase of a star's life help make the structures seen in planetary nebulae.'
The team believes this dance between stars could account for the variety of glowing shapes seen around dying stars.
But despite the regular timing of the blobs, they are not always sent flying off in the same direction.
As the companion star wobbles slightly in its orbit, it affects the accretion disc, so the direction of the balls flips from either back and forth or side to side with each orbit.
As the companion orbits in its elliptical path, it strays close enough to the red giant that material is sucked away and settles into an accretion disc around the smaller star
The disc acts as a 'launch pad' for the plasma balls, firing them off into space at speeds of around half a million miles per hour
‘This discovery was quite surprising, but it is very pleasing as well because it helped explain some other mysterious things that had been observed about this star by others,’ said Sahai.
By viewing the star over a number of years a decade apart, the Nasa team was able to build up a longer term picture of the star system’s activity.
They showed that once the plasma cooled and expanded it was no longer visible, unless observed at longer wavelengths than visible light, picked up by the Submillimeter Array telescope in Hawaii.
By combining the data from multiple telescopes over a number of years, they are building up a picture of knotty clumps of plasma which expand, cool and spread out, showing the evolutionary process of a star from a red giant to a into a whispy planetary nebulae.
‘The observations show the blobs moving over time,’ added Sahai. ‘The [data] show blobs that have just been ejected, blobs that have moved a little farther away, and blobs that are even farther away.’
The findings have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.
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