Strangely Shaped Ray


While this starry vista seems tran­quil, the events that shaped the Pen­cil Neb­ula were noth­ing but quiet. Stars are born and stars die and when they do, they cre­ate amaz­ing stel­lar land­scapes. A star, per­haps a mas­sive one, exploded to sculpt this beau­ti­ful starry scene that resem­bles an exotic bird head or a strangely shaped ray of light.

Explore the fine fil­a­ments, bright knots, and neb­u­lous rem­nants of the Pen­cil Neb­ula; just a tiny piece of the Vela Super­nova rem­nant. What shapes or sto­ries do you see? Leave a note in the com­ments below.

The oddly shaped neb­ula, also known as NGC 2736, makes up the bright edge of this piece of the rem­nant. The wispy red fil­a­ments look much like a witch’s broom. The new image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter tele­scope at ESO’s La Silla Obser­va­tory in Chile. These glow­ing wisps of gas and dust are the result of the cat­a­clysmic death of a star more than 11,000 years ago.

A super­nova is a vio­lent end to a star’s life. The blast is the result of either the death of a high-mass star or explo­sion of a white dwarf in a close dou­ble star sys­tem. The Vela super­nova rem­nant is a vast expand­ing shell of gas. And as this shell expands it slams into the calm gas and dust sur­round­ing it. This shock­wave com­presses the gas and causes the neb­u­lae begin to glow. Those lit­tle fil­a­ments show the many shok­waves mov­ing through the area. At first, as gas mol­e­cules are squished together, these regions are heated to mil­lions of degrees but quickly cool as the shock­wave passes. Enough lin­ger­ing heat remains for observers on Earth to view the strange struc­tures cre­ated from the shockwave’s inter­ac­tion with the calm sur­round­ing cloud.

Dif­fer­ent col­ors within the neb­ula allow astronomers to map tem­per­a­tures within the cloud of gas. Some regions glow hotly and are dom­i­nated by ion­ized oxy­gen atoms. These areas show with a blue light. Red­der areas are cooler ion­ized hydro­gen clouds.

The Pen­cil Neb­ula was dis­cov­ered by British astronomer John Her­schel in 1835. He described it as “an extra­or­di­nary long nar­row ray of exces­sively fee­ble light.” The neb­ula is also called Herschel’s Ray. The ray of light is about three-quarters of a light year across. The neb­ula is rolling through the sur­round­ing neb­ula at about 650,000 kilo­me­ters per hour (about 404,000 miles per hour). The Pen­cil Neb­ula is close too, only about 800 light-years from Earth toward the con­stel­la­tion of Vela, the sails of Jason’s myth­i­cal ship the Argo. This means that over the span of a human life, the starry face of the Pen­cil Neb­ula change as it moves against the back­ground of stars.

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The ancient peo­ples saw pic­tures in the sky. From those pat­terns in the heav­ens, ancient sto­ry­tellers cre­ated leg­ends about heroes, maid­ens, drag­ons, bears, cen­taurs, dogs and myth­i­cal crea­tures…
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