The Twin Jet Nebula Flies on the Wings of a Cosmic Butterfly

Twin iridescent jets of gas stream outward from a binary planetary nebula at over 1 million kilometers (621,400 miles) an hour.

 Seemingly flapping cosmic wings of gas, the Butterfly Nebula has only been flying across the constellation Ophiuchus for around 1,200 years. A binary star system with suns in the final days of their life cycles, astronomers are currently studying this unusual celestial object in hopes of understanding the processes creating such stunning beauty.

Seemingly flapping cosmic wings of gas, the Butterfly Nebula has only been flying across the constellation Ophiuchus for around 1,200 years. A binary star system with suns in the final days of their life cycles, astronomers are currently studying this unusual celestial object in hopes of understanding the processes creating such stunning beauty.

Space news (September 24, 2015) –

First recorded flying across the constellation Ophiuchus – about 2,100 light-years from Earth – by Rudolph Minkowski in 1947, the Twin Jet Nebula (PN M2-9), or Wings of a Butterfly Nebula, is a remarkably complex and stunningly beautiful 1,200-year-old bipolar planetary nebula.

Rudolph Leo Bernhard Minkowski 28 May 1895 1961 Bruce Medalist 4 January 1976
Rudolph Leo Bernhard Minkowski
28 May 1895 1961 Bruce Medalist 4 January 1976 Image credit: phys-astro.sonoma.edu

A bipolar nebula composed of an average star between 1 to 1.4 solar masses nearing the end of its life cycle and a smaller white dwarf between 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses that orbit a common center of mass. The Twin Jet Nebula gets its name from the shape of its two lobes, which look like butterfly wings to many viewers. 

Astrophysicists think the shape of the wings (lobes) is mainly due to the unusual motion of the larger star and white dwarf around their common center of mass. Orbiting each other in around 100 years, the smaller white dwarf is thought to have stripped gas away from its larger companion star, which then formed an expanding ring of material around the stars far too small to be seen by Hubble.

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This disk of material was then stretched into the shape of two lobes resembling two butterfly wings, rather than a uniform sphere, due to the unusual motion of the two stars around their center of mass. The faint patches of blue within the wings, starting near the binary star system and extending outward horizontally, are twin jets of gas streaming outward at over 1 million kilometers an hour. These jets slowly change their orientation, precessing across the lobes (wings) as the two stars orbit each other.

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Astronomers have noted a west to east, left to right, the precession of the Butterfly Nebula. Credit: NASA/Hubble

Astrophysicists are now taking a closer look at the Twin Jet Nebula, and other bipolar nebulae, to try to determine if such systems always contain two stars orbiting a common center of mass. Currently, astronomers are discussing this possibility, and other scenarios possibly leading to the birth and growth of similar celestial objects and other phenomena.

Hubble Sees Supersonic Exhaust From Nebula

Two astronomers working with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s New Technology Telescope also recently conducted a study of 130 planetary nebulae. Dr. Brian Rees and Dr. Albert Zijlstra of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom found the long axis of many bipolar planetary nebulae studied all line up along the plane of the Milky Way. This alignment could have something to do with the magnetic field of the bulge at the center of our galaxy they think. You can read the abstract here.

You can learn more about bipolar nebulae here.

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Learn how ancient Peruvian astronomers thousands of years ago devised a system to mark the rising and falling off the Sun.

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