Astronomers Say They Found a Space-Laser Shooting Out of a Binary Star in the Ant Nebula
Back in the 1920s, theoretical astronomer and astrophysicist Donald Menzel identified Menzel 3, a nebula we now know as the Ant Nebula. He was also one of the first scientists to propose the existence of lasers, which instantly makes him one of the coolest people in history.
However, Menzel wasn't talking about man-made lasers, like the kind we see in Star Wars—he was talking space lasers, and it just so happens that the Ant Nebula, the nebula that Menzel discovered decades before lasers were ever conceived, has been spotted shooting a giant laser into the vast emptiness of space.
Here's the rundown on nebulae: older stars eventually shrink to become white dwarfs, which expel rings of gas that expand outward, away from the star. Nebulae are formed by this mix of gas and dust and float around the white dwarf, creating beautiful, colorful patterns that can be spotted here on Earth.
The Ant Nebula is especially vivid and resembles the head and thorax of an ant, hence the name.
Recently, the ESA's Herschel Observatory spotted an infrared laser emission coming from the nebula's core, which is remarkable, because these types of lasers can only be created under very specific conditions.
In this case, the nebula would need a lot of dense gas packed in one area, close to the star. That's a difficult proposition, because most white dwarfs push all their gas away from them. The answer, astronomers found, may be that there's actually two stars inside the Ant Nebula.
According to Albert Zijlstra, one of the scientists associated with the discovery:
"The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a disc...The disc suggests there is a binary companion, because it is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction. The laser gives us a unique way to probe the disc around the dying star, deep inside the planetary nebula."
The second star hasn't been spotted directly yet, but the existence of the laser suggests its lurking somewhere in all that gas and dust. Either way, this is a great day to remember Menzel.
According to Dr. Isabel Aleman: "Such [an] 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."