Lasers Shooting from Ant Nebula Reveal Secret Star System

Astronomers have spotted an arthropod-shaped nebula shooting off strange lasers, which could only mean there’s more to this nebula’s story than we think.

An international team of researchers studying this “ant nebula” — which truly looks like the head and thorax of its insect namesake — say the lasers could be the result of a double star system located deep inside the nebula.

Using observations from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel space observatory, researchers were able to spot signs of a star’s death, which is usually associated with this kind of dramatic event. In an area that’s usually dead near the nebula’s main star, scientists found a disk of dense gas. This could be evidence of the scientist’s hunch — that the ant nebula contains two stars. Researchers still haven’t spotted the companion star, though.

This kind of “space laser,” which sounds very sci-fi, is very rarely found. These new observations show the “central star in the core of the Ant Nebula” is even brighter than NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope pictures previously showed, according to a press release from the University of Manchester.

ant nebula

NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A paper detailing the astronomers’ findings were published on May 16 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“We detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination laser emission, which is only produced in a narrow range of physical conditions,” the study’s lead author Isabel Aleman of the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands explains in a statement. “Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered.”

The ant nebula, AKA Menzel 3, is located about 8,000 light-years away. It is named after astronomer Donald Menzel, who discovered it in the 1920s. Menzel gave the region its now-famous “ant” nickname. Researchers believe the first star in the ant nebula is taking mass away from its neighbor, still hiding from scientists. It’s a little shy.

Nebulae, including this one, are clouds of dust and gas. While that might not sound like the most glamorous description, these things sure know how to put on a show — especially when there are lasers involved.

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