Blue bubble marks a star’s last gasp

This spectacular blue bubble in deep space was discovered by an amateur astronomer in a special collaboration with professional scientists. It is a ghostly shell of gas thrown off by a star in its death throes and is helping rekindle debate about how such events occur.

The nebula photographed with the 8.1-meter Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii
The nebula photographed with the 8.1-meter Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii

Space enthusiast Matthias Kronberger spotted the previously unknown nebula as a tiny blur on pictures in a digital sky survey by robotic telescopes.

Scientists using one of the world’s biggest telescopes, the 8.1-meter Gemini North instrument on a mountaintop in Hawaii, zoomed in to photograph the object looking like a deflated football.

The new ghostly gas cloud, which has been named Kronberger 61 after its Austrian discoverer, is a type called a planetary nebula. It has nothing to do with planets and is thought to be a shell of gas blown out by a Sun-like star in its dying gasps. More than 3,000 are already known in our galaxy. One of the most famous examples is the Helix Nebula which has been dubbed the Eye of God.

The nebula lies in a small area of the Milky Way which is being searched by NASA’s Kepler space probe in a bid to find Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

Kepler is constantly staring at more than 150,000 stars in a region near the constellation of Cygnus the swan to check for changes in their brightness. It has already found 1,200 possible candidates for alien planets since it was launched in March 2009.

Kronenberg, who works as a physicist, is a member of an amateur astronomy club known as the Deep Sky Hunters which decided to search for new objects in Kepler’s field of view.

Astronomers will be keen to use the unmanned spacecraft to discover whether the faint star at the centre of Kronberger 61 has a companion star or planets going around it.

That could help solve a long-standing mystery of whether the existence of a companion is key to the nebula’s formation and shape.

Professor Orsola De Marco of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, said: “Explaining the puffs left behind when medium sized stars like our Sun expel their last-breaths is a source of heated debate among astronomers, especially the part that companions might play. It literally keeps us up at night!”

The Gemini image was released to mark a special gathering organised by astronomy’s governing body the International Astronomical Union to discuss planetary nebulae in the Canary Islands this week.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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