Ghostly spiral is a natural wonder

Posted on September 8th, 2010

The Hubble space telescope has taken a picture that looks sure to get some of the more extreme alien fantasists in a frenzy. And to be fair, the perfect form of the ghostly spiral imaged by the orbiting observatory really does look almost too good to be true.

Ghostly spiral pictured by Hubble (NASA/ESA)

NASA experts say the object is one of the most perfect geometrical forms they have spotted in space. But sadly this is not a Stargate-style portal into another dimension. The extraordinary pattern is actually formed by a stream of dust and gas winding around an invisible star.

We can’t see the star, labelled LL Pegasi, in the constellation of Pegasus the Winged Horse, because it is hidden behind thick dust. The material forming the spiral is racing outwards at over 30,000mph (50,000kph). It is being studied by a team led by Professor Mark Morris, of the University of California in Los Angeles. They combined images taken with an instrument on Hubble called the Advanced Camera for Surveys to get their spectacular picture.

Scientists believe the spiral has been produced because LL Pegasi is actually not one star but two which orbit each other every 800 years.

One star of possibly similar mass to the Sun is dying. But instead of exploding like a supernova it is undergoing a more gentle demise, throwing off puffs of gas and dust which is then twisted into the swirling pattern by its companion.

Such shells of gas and dust are common in the galaxy and known as planetary nebulae. They have nothing to do with planets, but the term describes their usual disk-like appearance. One of the most spectacular examples, the Helix Nebula, has been dubbed the Eye of God because of its extraordinary appearance.

Common or not, LL Pegasi is a very special example and has produced a picture to inspire wonder. (And talking of wonders, take note of the many other interesting objects in the background, other distant galaxies of thousands of billions of stars. Enjoys some more of Hubble’s greatest hits here!)

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!


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