Creature from the cosmic lagoon

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / DSS / STScI

This image composite shows two views of a puffy, dying star, or planetary nebula, known as NGC 1514. The view on the left is from a ground-based, visible-light telescope; the view on the right shows the object in infrared light, as seen by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

Using a little colorization, the scientists behind NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer have turned the structures of gas and dust surrounding a dying star into something that looks like a delicate deep-sea creature.

“I am reminded of the jellyfish exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium — beautiful things floating in water, except this one is in space,” UCLA’s Ned Wright, the principal investigator for the WISE mission, said in a NASA feature about the imagery. Wright is one of the authors of a scientific paper about the WISE observations, which are being reported in the Astronomical Journal.

NGC 1514, also known as the Crystal Ball Nebula, is a planetary nebula in the constellation Taurus, 800 light-years from Earth. It has the characteristic shell of material thrown off during the latter stages of a star’s life. In this case, the dying star is actually two stars — a dying giant that’s heavier than our sun, and the white-dwarf remnant of what was once an even larger star.

The view on the left was taken in visible light, as part of the Digitized Sky Survey headquartered at the Space Telescope Science Institute. The shimmering blue halo is the nebula’s outer bubble of gas, surrounding the two dying stars in the center. The view on the right is WISE’s view, color-coded to reflect different wavelengths of infrared light.

An inner shell of material appears as a greenish haze in WISE’s view. What’s really striking, however, are the orange rings, seen farther out.

Scientists say those rings indicate places where jets of material from the white dwarf have smashed into the walls of the outer bubble. “Dust in the rings is being heated and glows with infrared light that WISE detects,” the WISE team explained in an image advisory.

One of Wright’s co-authors, Michael Ressler of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he was “shocked” to see the rings show up in the infrared view. “This object has been studied for more than 200 years, but WISE shows us it still has surprises,” he said.

More beauties from WISE:

* NASA telescope spots ‘cosmic rose’ * WISE peers into the ‘Heart’ of a nebula * Space telescopes see a comet * Slideshow: Wonders from WISE

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Connect with the Cosmic Log community by “liking” the log’s Facebook page or following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out “The Case for Pluto,” my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

URL: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/11/17/5484797-creature-from-the-cosmic-lagoon

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