Astronomers Find a Star That Burps Perfect Spheres
This infrared image shows a star in the constellation Cepheus. At right and bottom are magnified inserts of the perfect sphere of material the star has ejected. (National Radio Astronomy Observatory)
|By Amanda Onion
May 16 — In a feat that has scientists baffled, a hungry young star more than 2,000 light years away, appears to be belching perfectly spherical bubbles of gas and dust.
"The bubble is perfectly symmetrical," says Paul Ho, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "It's unusual and we have no idea how this may form."
Ho and a team of international scientists detected the star's unique ability using 10 radio-telescope antennas located across the continental United States, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands and published their results in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
A Big Bubble and Growing Fast
Since the team began its observations, the star's first bubble, which astronomers estimate was expelled about 33 years ago, has bloated in size to 5.8 billion miles in diameter.
It's still expanding at a rate of about 20,000 miles an hour, says Ho. Plus, another bubble appears to be right behind the first and it too is strangely symmetrical.
"It is surprising that nature can maintain such perfect symmetry, especially since the environment around the young star must be so varied," Guillen Anglada, an astronomer from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalucia in Granada, Spain said in a statement. "This appears to be a triumph of order over chaos."
Scientists believe that stars form as spinning clumps of gas and dust gather and collapse in upon themselves by the weight of their own gravity. During this collapse, material inside the massive clump breaks into smaller clumps, generating heat and setting off the stars' continual combustion.
Spinning and Spewing
As they form, it's thought the young stars shoot off excess material to slow down and prevent them breaking apart. Traditional theories and observations have suggested the stars eject the material in the form of two jet streams — not in perfect spheres.
These observations mark the first time a young star has been seen ejecting bubble-like emissions.
"It could imply that current theories of stellar formation must be revised to explain this unique source," wrote Keven Marvel of the American Astronomical Society in an accompanying article in Nature.
To detect the star's bubbles, Ho said the team was able to coordinate its 10 telescopes' readings and examine them in unprecedented detail.
"It's like standing in New York City and seeing the nose on a Lincoln penny that's held up in Los Angeles," says Ho. "Except, we're not only seeing the nose, we can see the nose hairs."
The team plans to continue watching the star's strange bubbles to
see how long the spheres of material can maintain their symmetry within
the chaotic environs