Astronomy Photo of the Day (APotD): 11/09/14 — The Southern Crab Nebula

Meet the Southern Crab Nebula (otherwise known as He2-104); a strikingly strange region found about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the Centaurus constellation. As NASA once described it (all the way back in 1999, when this image was released), the oddly-shaped structure resembles “an hourglass nestled within an hourglass,” only it’s a rather large one. The primary nebula spans several light-years across and is powered by not one, but two central stars, with vastly different characteristics.

The stars themselves — a red giant, which currently hangs on the precipice between life and death, and a white dwarf, the remnant of a star that has already transitioned into the cosmic afterlife — comprise something known as a symbiotic system.

This red giant isn’t your garden variety ‘dying Sun’ though. It’s technically classified as a Mira variable star, which essentially tells us that this star pulsates at regular intervals and has a reddish hue. Also noteworthy is the fact that the stars are just loosely tied together. The distance between them is so vast, it takes close to 100 years for them to complete a full rotation around the other.

However, they still hold immense power over the gaseous tomb they are currently encased in. NASA notes:

“Astronomers speculate that the interaction between these two stars may have sparked episodic outbursts of material, creating the gaseous bubbles that form the nebula. They interact by playing a celestial game of "catch”: as the red giant throws off its bulk in a powerful stellar wind, the white dwarf catches some of it. As a result, an accretion disk of material forms around the white dwarf and spirals onto its hot surface. Gas continues to build up on the surface until it sparks an eruption, blowing material into space.“

"This explosive event may have happened twice in the "Southern Crab.” Astronomers speculate that the hourglass-shaped nebulae represent two separate outbursts that occurred several thousand years apart. The jets of material in the lower left and upper right corners may have been accelerated by the white dwarf’s accretion disk and probably are part of the older eruption.“

This image of the Southern Crab highlights the prominent glow of the region’s nitrogen gas content. It, in turn, has been energized by the ultraviolet radiation streaming from the white dwarf’s surface.

Sources & Other Resources: http://bit.ly/1wHpxPj

Image Credit: Romano Corradi, Mario Livio, Space Telescope Science Institute, Ulisse Munari, NASA

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