Approximately 3,000 light-years from Earth lies one of the most complex and least understood nebulae, a swirling landscape of gas and dust left behind in the death throes of a star. A new computer visualization reveals the three-dimensional structure of the Cat’s Eye nebula and suggests how not one, but a pair of dying stars sculpted its complexity.
The digital reconstruction, based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals two symmetrical rings around the edges of the nebula. The rings were probably formed by a rotating jet of charged gas that was launched from two stars at the center of the nebula, Ryan Clairmont and colleagues report in October Royal Astronomical Society Monthly Notices.
“I realized that there hasn’t been a comprehensive study of the nebula’s structure since the early 1990s,” says Clairmont, a student at Stanford University. Last year, when she was a high school student in San Diego, she contacted a couple of astrophysicists from a scientific imaging company called Ilumbra who had written software to reconstruct the three-dimensional structure of astronomical objects.
The team combined Hubble images with ground-based observations of light at various wavelengths, revealing the movements of the nebula’s gas. Figuring out which parts were moving toward and away from Earth helped reveal its three-dimensional structure.
The team identified two partial rings on either side of the nebula’s center. The symmetry and unfinished nature of the rings suggest that they are the remains of a plasma jet launched from the heart of the nebula and then quenched before it could complete a full circle. Such jets typically form through an interaction between two stars orbiting each other, says Wolfgang Steffen, a partner at Ilumbra, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
The work won a Clairmont Award at the 2021 International Science and Engineering Fairan annual competition organized by the Society for Science, which publishes science news. Steffen was skeptical about the tight deadline: When Clairmont approached, he only had two months to complete the project.
“I said that’s impossible! Not even the doctorate. students or anyone has tried it before,” says Steffen. “He did brilliantly. He achieved it all and more than we expected.”