Nothing passes gas like a dying star.
When a star about the size of the sun nears the end of its life, it sheds its outer layer of gas in a bright and beautiful bubble known as a planetary nebula. At the center of each bubble, a faint star continues to radiate its surroundings, sculpting the gas into colorful shapes that astronomers have likened to crabs, reptiles and scary screaming faces.
One of the strangest and most confusing of these cosmic clouds is the Cat’s Eye Nebula, located about 3,000 light-years from Earth. Seemingly made of many overlapping bubbles of blue gas with long, streamer-like filaments wrapped tightly around them, the nebula defied clear explanation for centuries.
Now, new research was published on September 15 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (opens in new tab) can finally provide an answer. Using data collected by the San Pedro Mártir National Observatory in Mexico showing the motions of different layers of gas in the nebula, astronomers created the first 3D model of the Cat’s Eye Nebula.
Their computer-generated map reveals a pair of perfectly symmetrical rings swirling the length of the nebula’s outer shell. According to the researchers, there is only one possible cause for the symmetry of these rings: a twin-barrel burst of energy known as a jet ejecta.
Basically, as the nebula’s central star died, it released two bursts of high-density gas in opposite directions at the same time, the study authors wrote. But instead of staying fixed in place, the jets began to oscillate (or advance) like a spinning top, leaving slowly looping rings of gas swirling up and down the star.
Jets like these are rare and only exist in binary star systems – that is, systems with two central stars that orbit each other, the authors wrote in the study. These jets provide strong evidence that the Cat’s Eye Nebula was once a binary star system that was extinguished with a spectacular bang.
“Preprocessing jets in planetary nebulae are relatively rare, so it is important to understand how they contribute to the formation of more complex systems like the Cat’s Eye,” said lead study author Ryan Clairmont, an undergraduate student at Stanford University. he said in a statement (opens in new tab). “Ultimately, understanding how they form provides insight into the ultimate fate of our Sun, which will itself one day become a planetary nebula.”
Originally published in Live Science.