Ooooo, pretty! And a little scary.

Contributed by
Oct 21, 2008

Welcome Coast to Coasters! If this is your first time here, have a look around. You'll probably find both stuff you like and stuff you disagree with. I encourage you to comment on either or both. I'm all about the rational discourse here.

Sometimes, I just like linking to pretty pictures:

But of course I have to describe it.

This is the nebula Gum 29, a vast cloud of gas surrounding the cluster Westerlund 2. If that cluster sounds familiar, then you are a major BA geek: I've written about it in the past here and here. It's a beefy cluster: if you added up all the stars, they would mass 100,000 times that of the Sun! There is also a star deep in the heart of the nebula that is actually a binary, two stars orbiting each other (you can see them better in this image). Called WR20a, each of the two stars has more than 80 times the mass of the Sun! That's near the upper limit of what a star can be, so having two orbiting each other is incredible. A binary like this may be unique in the entire Milky Way galaxy!

Both stars will blow up soon. That'll be a pair of pretty big bangs when they do. Happily, at 26,000 light years distant, they're too far away to hurt us (they'd have to be within about 100 light years or so to do anything to us; I have all the gory details in my book -- take a look to your right in the blog sidebar), but close enough that they'll make an incredible show. But it may take a few thousand more years before they pop.

The image was taken using the European Southern Observatory's 2.2 meter 'scope in La Silla, Chile. It's more or less "true color", though it also used a filter which picks out warm, glowing hydrogen gas to emphasize the nebula.

I'm sure there's lot of science that can be squeezed from this image: how stars are born, how they die, how their cocooning gas behaves during all this, how clusters affect the way stars are born.

That's all very cool. But sometimes, just sometimes, I like to just look at the pretty pictures.

Image credit: ESO

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