About 3,000 years light from Earth, it sits among the most complex and least understood nebulae, a rolling landscape of gas and dust left in the wake of a dying star. A new computer visualization shows the 3-D structure of the Eye of the Cat nebula and hints at how not one, but a pair of dying stars sculpted its composition.
The digital update, based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope, shows two symmetrical rings around the edges of the nebula. The rings were probably formed by jets of charged gas that were launched from the two stars at the center of the nebula, Ryan Clairmont and colleagues reported in October. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“I realized there wasn’t a comprehensive study of the structure of the nebula since the early ’90s,” says Clairmont, an undergraduate at Stanford University. Last year, while a student at San Diego High School in San Diego, he reached out to two astrophysicists at a scientific imaging company called Ilumbra, which has software wrote to establish the 3-D structure of astronomical objects.
The Hubble team combined the images with observations based on light at several wavelengths, which revealed the movement of the nebula’s vapor. Remaining parts that move towards and are supported by the Earth reveal their 3-D structure.
The team identifies two partial rings to either side of the center of the nebula. The symmetry and imperfect nature of the rings suggest that they are remnants of plasma jets ejected from the heart of the nebula, before being obliterated before completing a full circle. Such jets are usually formed by interaction between two stars orbiting each other, says Ilumbra partner Wolfgang Steffen, who is based in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Clairmont’s work won a prize at the 2021 International Science and Engineering Fair, an annual competition organized by the Science Society, which publishes Science News. Steffen was skeptical about the tight deadlines – when Clairmont left, he had only two months to complete the task.
“I said it was impossible! Not even Sen. students or anyone had tried it before,” Steffen says.
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