Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Star Streaks Across The Sky

A new ultraviolet mosaic from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer shows an amazingly long comet-like tail behind a star streaking through space at supersonic speeds. The star, named Mira after the Latin word for "wonderful," has been a favorite of astronomers for about 400 years. It is a fast-moving, older star called a red giant that sheds massive amounts of surface material.

The space-based Galaxy Evolution Explorer scanned the popular star during its ongoing survey of the entire sky in ultraviolet light. Astronomers then noticed what looked like a comet with a tail. In fact, material blowing off Mira is forming a wake 13 light-years long, or about 20,000 times the average distance of Pluto from the sun. Nothing like this has ever been seen before around a star.

As Mira hurtles along, its tail sheds carbon, oxygen and other important elements needed for new stars, planets and possibly even life to form. This tail material, visible now for the first time, has been released over the past 30,000 years.
[+/-] Click here to expand

Billions of years ago, Mira was similar to our sun. Over time, it began to swell into what's called a variable red giant - a pulsating, puffed-up star that periodically grows bright enough to see with the naked eye. Mira will eventually eject all of its remaining gas into space, forming a colorful shell called a planetary nebula. The nebula will fade with time, leaving only the burnt-out core of the original star, which will then be called a white dwarf.

Compared to other red giants, Mira is traveling unusually fast, possibly due to gravitational boosts from other passing stars over time. It now plows along at 130 kilometers per second, or 291,000 miles per hour. Racing along with Mira is a small, distant companion thought to be a white dwarf. The pair, also known as Mira A (the red giant) and Mira B, orbit slowly around each other as they travel together in the constellation Cetus 350 light-years from Earth.

In addition to Mira's tail, Galex also discovered a bow shock, a type of buildup of hot gas, in front of the star, and two sinuous streams of material coming out of the star's front and back. Astronomers think hot gas in the bow shock is heating up the gas blowing off the star, causing it to fluoresce with ultraviolet light. This glowing material then swirls around behind the star, creating a turbulent, tail-like wake. The process is similar to a speeding boat leaving a choppy wake, or a steam train producing a trail of smoke.

The fact that Mira's tail only glows with ultraviolet light might explain why other telescopes have missed it. The Galaxy Evolution Explorer is very sensitive to ultraviolet light and also has an extremely wide field of view, allowing it to scan the sky for unusual ultraviolet activity.

Mira's tail offers a unique opportunity to study how stars like our sun die and ultimately seed new solar systems.

"It's amazing to discover such a startlingly large and important feature of an object that has been known and studied for over 400 years," said James D. Neill of Caltech. "This is exactly the kind of surprise that comes from a survey mission like the Galaxy Evolution Explorer."

"This is an utterly new phenomenon to us, and we are still in the process of understanding the physics involved," said Mark Seibert of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena. "We hope to be able to read Mira's tail like a ticker tape to learn about the star's life."

Mira is also what's called a pulsating variable star. It dims and brightens by a factor of 1,500 every 332 days, and will become bright enough to see with the naked eye in mid-November 2007. Because it was the first variable star with a regular period ever discovered, other stars of this type are often referred to as "Miras."

Mira is located 350 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, otherwise known as the whale. Coincidentally, Mira and its "whale of a tail" can be found in the tail of the whale constellation.

Caltech leads the Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission and is responsible for science operations and data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, manages the mission and built the science instrument. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. The mission was developed under NASA's Explorers Program managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Researchers sponsored by Yonsei University in South Korea and the Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (CNES) in France collaborated on this mission.

Speeding-Bullet Star Leaves Enormous Streak Across Sky JPL News Release
Graphics & information about the Galaxy Evolution Explorer are online at - and -
Mira: Star with a Comet-like Tail from Centauri Dreams
Shocking Mira and Bowshocks by Julianne @ Cosmic Variance
Mira's Supersonic Comet Tail Across The Sky @ Scientific Blogging
Star light, star bright: - FSU duplicating conditions of supernovas.


Labels: , , ,