Saturday, April 9, 2011

Shockwaves and invisible colors: Zeta Ophiuchi, 01.31.11

A huge star, 20 times the mass of our own sun, is hurtling through space. Possibly sent on its course by its former binary star companion’s supernova, the star has been surfing the heavens at roughly 54,000 miles per hour. NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope has captured the star as it hurtled through a giant dust cloud, creating a massive shockwave, called “bow shock,” like the wave preceding a ship in the ocean. Zeta Ophiuchi, of the constellation Ophiuchus (of recent zodiac fame/infamy), can be seen here creating the giant, golden arc before its path.

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Although a beautiful spectacle to behold, it is important to remember the colors we are seeing are not really there at all, at least not as visible light. The colors are actually a result of the infrared imaging. Otherwise, the image would just look like a big, fuzzy, dust smudge with small, lighter bits. That dust, by the way, is obscuring the light from Zeta Ophiuchi. Astronomers believe it would be 65,000 times brighter without the surrounding dust cloud.

But wait a minute, you say, back up! Stars move? Yes, they do indeed, says Thronateeska’s staff astronomer, Jim Friese. “I don’t think people realize that stars are not fixed,” he says, “and some move a lot. This is a great example of how dynamic and changeable stars are; it just takes a long time.”


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