A cosmic monster served up for Halloween

In space, no one can hear you scream, they say. But that’s what you might want to do if you came across this ghostly cosmic character. Looking like some monstrous psychedelic puffer fish, this denizen of deep space puts on an eerie glow that seems just right for Halloween.

Wolf-Rayet star HD 50896
Wolf-Rayet star HD 50896 imaged using X-ray data from ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope. Credit: ESA/J. Toala et al

In fact the image is of a hot and massive star 5,000 light-years away as seen with the X-ray vision of the European Space Agency’s XMM_Newton space telescope.

It is an example of a Wolf-Rayet star that is far hotter and more massive than the Sun and which lives a relatively short life astronomically speaking. The powerful stellar wind from such a star throws off a vast bubble of material.

This star, labelled HD 50896 and lying in the constellation of Canis Major, is actually the pink object near the centre that represents one of our creature’s eyes. The shell of million-degree plasma that it has blown off, coloured blue here, stretches nearly 60 miles across and has its own label, S 308.

The green halo is produced by a shock wave that is racing outwards from the star and which has collided with the layers of its matter already ejected into space. The extension to the bubble at top left is a “blow-out” of X-ray emission detected by the space telescope.

ESA scientists who released this picture in time for the Haloween holiday say that the witching hour will soon come for this bubble and its “live fast, die young” star. The bubble will burst and disperse into the surrounding environment, while the star will end its life in a dramatic supernova explosion.

The X-ray data from XMM-Newton’s EPIC camera was combined with optical images acquired using the Michigan Curtis Schmidt Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory to produce the picture.

X-Ray Emission from the Wolf-Rayet Bubble S 308 by J. Toala et al is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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