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Laser Blasts From Ant Nebula Signal ‘Dramatic’ Death Of A Twin Star System

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Astronomers at the European Space Agency spotted unusual laser beams emitted from the Ant Nebula, signaling a possible death of a two-star system in its core.

Infrared images from the Herschel Space Observatory showed a burst of colorful light spectra produced by an intense energy emanating from the Ant Nebula's core.

Scientists said this rare phenomenon occurs when low to middle-weight stars like the Solar System's sun approaches its demise. Astronomer Donald Menzel, who first observed this particular nebula in the 1920s, predicted that the Ant Nebula (officially known as Menzel 3) is capable of emitting laser light.

Menzel referred to this phenomenon as "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," widely known as "laser." His observation is celebrated every 16th of May.

"Herschel offered the perfect observing capabilities to detect this extraordinary laser in the Ant Nebula. The findings will help constrain the conditions under which this phenomenon occurs, and help us to refine our models of stellar evolution. It is also a happy conclusion that the Herschel mission was able to connect together Menzel's two discoveries from almost a century ago," said Göran Pilbratt, Herschel project scientist.

The study was published May 16 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

How Is Laser Light Formed?

Previous observations on models showed that the density of the laser-emitting gas is 10,000 times higher than those of typical nebulae, as well as in the lobes of the Ant Nebula.

The region close to a dead star - where proximity is comparable to the distance of Saturn to the Sun - is typically void of any space material since most of it is ejected outwards. Co-author Albert Zijlstra said they have observed a dense disc in the very core of the Ant Nebula.

Zijlstra explained that the orientation of Ant Nebula allows the amplification of the laser signal.

"The disc suggests the white dwarf has 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," Zijlstra added.

The study authors said they did not expect to see a second star, although they hypothesized that it could be a mass from the dying star that was captured by the original planetary nebula.

Toshiya Ueta, the principal investigator of the Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey, noted that their recent discovery is remarkable and unanticipated. He said laser emissions were only seen in limited space objects before, and that the Herschel allowed them to see stellar nebulae in a different view.

What Is A Planetary Nebula?

A planetary nebula is the aftermath of massive stars when it dies. It is a combination of gas and particles that form a luminous envelope, which emits a kaleidoscope of light that will burn for around 10,000 years.

Scientists predicted that sun will likely transform into a planetary nebula once it dies in about 5 million years. When it happens, the nuclear energy will eventually engulf Mercury and Venus, and life on Earth will cease to exist.

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