Astronomers Watched the Ant Nebula Firing Lasers into Space

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Astronomers watching the Ant Nebula at the European Space Agency’s Herschel space observatory have made a spectacular discovery. The nebula emitted laser blasts, telling astronomers that inside its core there is something hidden

Putting the pieces together, the astronomers concluded that inside the nebula, a star is dying. The star probably shrank into a white dwarf and started to ejects gas and dust.

Last week, a study showed that, in 10 billion years, when our Sun will die, it would create a planetary nebula and leave behind a pale ring, similar to what happened to Abell 39.

The nebula shaped like an ant is created from dust, hydrogen, helium and ionized gases. The laser emissions suggest that inside it, the original star is dying.

The First Sighting of the ‘Space Ant’ Was in the 1920s

Astronomer Donald Menzel was the first one to observe and classify the Ant Nebula in the 1920s. This nebula also goes by the name of Menzel 3. The astronomer suggested that lasers could also be a natural phenomenon in a nebula. Later, lasers were invented in laboratories.

The new results have been published in a paper, in which the lead author, Dr. Isabel Aleman, explains their discovery:

“We detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination laser emission, which is only produced in a narrow range of physical conditions. Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered.”

Usually, the space near the dead star is empty, because it ejects material outwards. But the core of the Ant Nebula is different. Astronomers added that the laser points to another dying star, inside of the nebula:

“The disc suggests there is a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula.”

As for seeing the star inside the Ant Nebula, that’s going to take a while…

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Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.


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